One of the greatest pleasures in my job is being surprised when I’m looking for something that should be obvious and I stumble upon an idea, character or action that is completely different from what I expected. And then it happened to me on the night of June 12 in Paris, when I was reporting on the breakthrough of NUPES, the left-wing alliance created by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, which prevented President Emmanuel Macron from obtaining a second legislative majority and which greatly shook French politics.
In search of a NUPES member who could explain to me the success of this unlikely coalition—a mixture of communists, socialists, environmentalists, and activists from La France insoumise, the party founded by Mélenchon—I ended up in a pub in the 14th arrondissement. among the supporters of Rodrigo Arenas, candidate for the 10th constituency of Paris in the National Assembly, then occupied by a member of the Ensemble, the renamed Macronist coalition. Surrounded by happy supporters, Arenas, with his sleeves rolled up and smiling, looked like a winner, despite the fact that his position at the top of the electoral list with 42.6% did not guarantee a victory in the second round.
Exiled from Chile at the age of four with his family during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Arenas was a communist by birth, his father was a supporter of Marxist President Salvador Allende, who died in a coup d’état in 1973. In France, the Arenas family settled in Champigny-sur-Marne, the stronghold of Georges Marchais, longtime general secretary of the French Communist Party (PCF). Through public education, Arena have re-established themselves as French-style intellectuals/activists – father, Patricio, in particular, holds two master’s degrees, one in social engineering and the other in political economy. However, the son evolved in his politics, leaving the FKP for the environmental movement and the fight for the reform of schools within the federation of parents of pupils. Rodrigo Arenas, a father of four, has been particularly sensitive to the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting deterioration in relations between teachers and students, and between parents and government. Today, he told me, the biggest problem is inequality in the supposedly free and non-discriminatory education system. Already, teachers in private schools are paid by the state with the money of taxpayers, who often do not have the resources to pay for the costs of a private school. Also, “you must add your credit card” when you consider your child’s public school education. Like this ? In egalitarian France? “If a teacher quits in the middle of the school year and is not quickly replaced [situation de plus en plus fréquente à cause de la pénurie actuelle de professeurs]who will help the child pass the bachelor’s degree? You must hire a private teacher. »
There I told myself that I was dealing with another politician. In fact, Arenas was running for the Assembly for the first time, and he had the freshness of a less astute candidate than the average. Thoughtfully, however, he abruptly changed the subject to discuss capitalism and the environment, key political thrusts in Mélenchon’s grand strategy (Arenas refers to the head of NUPES as “Yoda” with some ironic admiration). And here it is, my surprise: according to Arenas, “many people [écologiquement corrects] who think it’s cool to cross Paris in an electric car. What’s not cool is the kids working in the lithium mines in Chile.” Crap ! I was completely unaware of the existence of children mining lithium in Chile, let alone exploiting those who work in the Congo in cobalt mines, another essential element for the lithium batteries that power ultra-cool Teslas. Indeed, Chile is the second largest producer of lithium in the world; indeed, Chile has a deplorable tradition of using children in industry. How many people are involved in lithium mining, a water-intensive process that can wreak havoc on communities adjacent to the mines and their huge salt ponds? I couldn’t find any data on underage children in Chile—the US government estimates that 4% of Chilean children aged 5 to 14 work—but Department of Labor experts in Washington say no one is studying in Chile. child labor since 2012, before lithium mining became popular in the country. More generally, they describe the practice of “forced labor” of children in various industries, including the mining industry. Not Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, who Wall Street and many American greens think is very cool, will clarify the facts about the lithium mines in Chile or the cobalt mines in the Congo, where children as young as six are exploited. years is well documented. As Arenas told me, “When something is cheap, someone somewhere pays.”
On June 19, Rodrigo Arenas was elected in the second round of legislative elections and sits on behalf of the LFI and NUPES on the Cultural and Educational Commission. I’m happy. After all, he taught me succinctly. Morally, “saving the planet” is harder than buying an electric car.
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. His column returns at the beginning of each month.