In the middle of February, long-time Die Linke member Stefan Liebich met with Québec solidaire’s president, Alejandra Zaga Mendez, and former leadership member André Frappier, as part of his ongoing series as a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation fellow, “Progressive America”.
Alejandra Zaga Mendez is president of the left-wing party Québec solidaire. She holds a PhD in sustainable development and conservation.
André Frappier was a member of Québec solidaire leadership from 2012 to 2018. He is also a member of the editorial boards of Canadian Dimension and Presse-toi à gauche.
Stefan Liebich was a member of the German Bundestag for Die Linke between 2009 and 2021. He is currently a fellow at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office.
This article first appeared in Jacobin.
In the early 2000s, Québec solidaire (QS) emerged from the ashes of Union des forces progressistes — a broad coalition party comprised of socialists, communists, and social democrats — and the alter-globalization organization Option citoyenne. In the relatively short life of the party, QS’s uncompromising left-wing platform has yielded strong results. In 2019, they were recognized as the second opposition party in Quebec’s National Assembly.
Die Linke, the descendant of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, is Germany’s democratic socialist party. It is a founding member of the Party of the European Left, an association of socialist, communist, and red-green parties across Europe. Die Linke is also affiliated with the transnational policy and educational group, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
In a wide-ranging discussion that covered Quebec’s independence movement, anti-racist politics, social housing, and the task of engaging grassroots networks, Liebich, Zaga Mendez, and Frappier talked through the differences and similarities between left platforms and campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic.
SL: I know you have ten members in the National Assembly (Quebec’s legislative assembly, MNA). I am interested in hearing about what you are fighting for at present. But first, let’s start with personal questions. How did you get involved in this political movement?
AM: I have been a QS member since 2009. I was 21 or so when I started. I grew up in a neighbourhood in the northeast of Montreal. In 2008, a young man from a Latino community got killed by the police. And there were riots. All of this happened about two blocks from my house. In response to these events, we organized a grassroots neighbourhood organization. The first boots on the ground, offering us help, were the Left. Members of QS were there to show their solidarity. That’s how I met Amir Khadir [MNA member and former spokesperson for QS].
Amir must be a famous figure in your party’s history.
AM: Oh yes. He was our first MNA. He was the first person to get elected. For me personally, he means a lot. He’s a fighter.
He was alone in the parliament. And even though he was alone, he took the time to come to my neighbourhood. For me, that’s what politics is about. It is taking an interest in what is happening on the street and bringing those issues to parliament and talking about them. That’s what inspired me to become a member. My political roots are grounded in that commitment to the grassroots. From there I attended a congress, and that’s how I met everybody. We met each other in groups — for instance, ecosocialist groups. When it was announced that they needed people on the board of directors, someone told me, “You should go”, and I was like, Why not?
AF: I think we made a good decision bringing you on!
AM: I was in charge of our mobilization campaigns. My first campaign, in 2015, was the fight to increase the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour. And I had a great experience. We would go to meetings of nonunionized workers. Because those are the ones that needed the raise — without a union, workers don’t have the same leverage.
Until 2002, there was no legal minimum wage in Germany. Our former party, the Party of Democratic Socialism, was the only party in favour of a legal minimum wage. We were even up against the unions. We were the only ones fighting for it. Now we have a legal minimum wage. I’m familiar with these discussions — especially as they pertain to low-wage workers in nonunionized factories.
AM: We did a lot of work on that campaign. It was the first time we made use of a strategy that we still use today — we call it “issue-based campaigning”. We put to use one simple measure that can be communicated everywhere — the fight for 15 dollars an hour is a good example. What is said in the streets is the same thing that is said in the parliament. We try to coordinate these things. We are out talking to people, asking questions, and that provides the floor for all political work. We have people in the streets — knocking on doors, petitioning, canvassing — with that mission.
Boots on the Ground
How do you become party president?
AM: I didn’t run as president until a few years later, in 2021. Prior to that, QS won more seats in parliament. Our success has largely come from our experience in past elections and the political campaigns we have waged, such as the fight for 15 dollars an hour. Thanks to the activists and radicals in our ranks, we were able to win new victories. To win a seat in the parliament you need between two and three hundred people. You need three hundred activists; you need three hundred volunteers. The only way we win districts is by knocking on doors. That has been the strategy. That’s how we won these districts.
At the time, I was also working on my PhD in sustainable development. My studies took me to Berlin. I became acquainted with the German way of writing environmental policies, which is really interesting. They have students coming from everywhere — often for the summer sessions. And it’s free. I mean, it was amazing.
Trust me, free tuition didn’t come out of nowhere. In the late 1990s and early 2000s — when the neoliberal wave was everywhere — several states in Germany implemented tuition for universities. It was a big fight for the Left. And we won. I’m pretty sure that no state in Germany charges tuition anymore.
When it existed, tuition was only charged in about half of the states and, compared with the United States, it was low. But as you know, once the door is open, tuition increases are inevitable. That was one of the German Left’s successful fights. We still have the opportunity to study for free.
AM: Even people from out of the country can study for free! I found that amazing. While I was doing my PhD, I became a member of a committee in our party called the Political Commissions. It was in our mandate to write our party platform. And I was really excited — it felt like, this is for real.
I decided to go back to Quebec and get involved. I did that for two years, from 2019 to ’21. In the commission, we would have thirteen to fourteen elected volunteers. And they were tasked with developing a party perspective — what are we going to put on the platform? We went through a process of consultation — we consulted with the MNAs and engaged organizations — and then we put it to our members to vote on.
Did you have a party congress prior to the vote? Die Linke held a party congress and then afterward party members held a referendum on the content of our platform.
AM: We just voted in the congress. We had the platform congress in November. I was doing the work there, but then had to hand my responsibilities over to another person because I was still finishing my PhD. And that’s when the former president told me she was not going to run again.
Why did she decide to quit?
AM: For personal reasons. It is a lot of work and she told me that, for her, four years was enough. And I was already involved — so I said yes.
Was there a competition?
AM: Nobody was vying for the position when I announced that I would run. It was not much of a conflict. I was elected in November.
Congratulations! Although I’m not sure if I should congratulate you. I used to be a chairman of my party in Berlin, and being in charge isn’t necessarily much fun. But you know that.
AM: There’s another person that works with me. I share tasks with our coordinator, Nadine, who I love. And we made that joke just yesterday: when people call us, it is not because they have good news.
They don’t call you to tell you how great you are. That doesn’t happen.
AM: No. It’s rare. People call you when you have something to resolve, they want your advice, or things are not going well.
The Thorniness of Sovereignty
You mentioned that you and your parents came from Peru.
AM: I was born there.
And now you are here, in Quebec, and you fight for independence. Our parties have a lot of things in common, like feminism, and social justice. This issue, however, is an obvious case of divergence. And it is very difficult for people outside Quebec to understand. For you, coming with your mom from a different country, how would you explain to me why this is important to you?
AM: In Quebec, there’s a strong feeling like we’re different from Canada. Socially and culturally. Even if I was born in Peru, I’m not only Peruvian. I am Québécois.
You grew up with this culture, this language. It is your home.
AM: It’s my culture now. There is a movement here that says that people like myself are not Québécois. But I am. And a part of the culture for me is the desire to transform our society. For me, that transformation is bound up with the independence movement. Our idea of sovereignty is not simply a matter of having control of a nation because we speak French — it is an anti-colonial movement. This sensibility is also deeply rooted in my Latin American heritage. We are still subjects of the Queen here. It’s crazy.
Yes. Canada should follow Barbados. That was the last country to decide that the Queen should no longer be head of state.
AM: You have to give an oath to the Queen when you are elected, or when you become a citizen. That is absurd.
If you ranked the policies you’re committed to, how high on that list is the issue of sovereignty?
AM: That depends.
On who you’re talking to?
AM: No. On the issue, on the situation. For me, the environment is the foremost issue. And then social justice, followed by anti-racist politics. Independence is a means toward those ends.
AF: The issue of sovereignty in Quebec is wedded to class politics. The workers’ movements were a big part of the sovereignty movement in the 1960s and 1970s. There were French Canadians that were living in really poor conditions. Language and class are less intertwined now — some of those people have become very rich. But the people at the bottom are still francophones. The ruling class is still English. They’re the people who have the money; they have the big business.
Quebec does have right-wing nationalists that also try to draw this distinction — to create a nationalist bloc predicated on ethnolinguistic identity. Unlike them, we fight for sovereignty from an anti-racist and an anti-colonialist perspective. We want to build along with social movements, unions, and the Left in the rest of Canada, and with indigenous nations. The fact is that the dynamic of struggle is different in Quebec because of the national question. Sovereignty is therefore a transversal issue, a way to achieve a social project in Quebec. But we want to build support in the rest of Canada in an effort to create a common fight against the Canadian imperialist state.
The issue of sovereignty in Quebec is wedded to class politics.
How is your idea of sovereignty anti-racist?
AM: For me, it means that we must build a country where we put anti-racist legislation in the constitution.
You will build your own country of Quebec — and it will be a progressive one?
AM: Exactly. We need to rebuild institutions from the ground up. The institutions we have now have been built within a colonialist structure.
I think I understand. But to be honest, it is very difficult to square with the mindset of progressive fights in other places. Other than Catalonia and maybe Scotland, for the most part, progressives in Germany and elsewhere feel that nationalism is a bad thing — it’s a right-wing concern.
AM: It can be. And we do debate these problems in our sovereignty movement.
AF: There are right-wing, white francophone nationalists. So it’s never easy.
AM: We want to make changes that ensure that everybody feels like they are a part of this society. When people feel part of their society, they also want to rebuild it.
Campaigns and Tactics
You mentioned that the campaign for a 15-dollar minimum wage was important to you. What would you say are the four or five things on your platform that create the most voter engagement — which are popular?
AM: Now we are working on different campaigns. For instance, we put forward the idea to “Make the rich pay” — a demand, framed in ecological terms, for an increase on the price of carbon for richer enterprises and an increase in the way that they pay for water. It is about the rights to extract water. Big industry doesn’t pay a lot for the water they take.
We also want to increase public transportation funding across cities. This is all in our platform, under the rubric “The quality of life”. We are also advocating for four weeks of holiday. People don’t have real holidays — they have only two weeks. We want comprehensive, public mental-health coverage and dental care. And housing is a big issue — it’s going to be one of our main issues during the campaign.
What do you want to change in housing?
Well, we need affordable housing. We don’t have enough. We need to implement rent control. Like you did in Berlin.
In Berlin, we have a middle-left government, and my party is part of the government. We used to have a department for housing. Our minister proposed a law, which was supported by the parliament in Berlin, to mandate rent breaks for tenants. And for a while, it worked exactly as it was intended to.
Unfortunately, right-wing parties — the conservatives, the liberals — went to the Supreme Court to appeal the law. The Supreme Court decided that the law was not within the purview of the state — it was under the jurisdictional authority of the federal government. So the law was killed. But in the wake of that defeat, a group of activists in Berlin called for a referendum on the expropriation of big housing companies. We supported that initiative and the referendum succeeded. There were more than 1 million votes in favour of it.
AM: Our positions are inspired by Berlin. But we have to adapt it to the context in Quebec.
It is always a heated topic in big cities, but not so much in rural areas.
AM: In Montreal and in Quebec City, people don’t have enough space, whereas in rural areas, the issue is a lack of services. You can find a place to live in the country, but the closest hospital might be more than an hour away. You have to drive for an hour and a half to get to work. The problem requires the building of more social housing.
I have a tactical question. Left parties in Europe debate the pros and cons of joining coalitions. And this is always a very divisive topic, because there are a lot of leftists who will say that joining a coalition necessitates too many compromises. On the other hand, however, there are those who argue that it is just a matter of strength and conviction — that the direction of government can be changed. What is the position of your party?
AM: We’re not coming from the same place as most of the other parties here. We don’t share the same cause as the Liberal Party. We call them the “party of business”. The Parti Québécois was the only possible coalition partner for us.
AF: We did have a big debate about forming a coalition with the Parti Québécois. And we were both on the board of directors at that time. The debate lasted almost a year, maybe more. Inside the leadership there were two positions, one in favour and one against. We were both against it. The party organized debates in Montreal, Quebec City, and around the province. There was a high level of engagement — a lot of our members participated. They wanted to understand the arguments for and against the proposal. We had our convention after the debates. The party decided no. With a huge majority.
It wasn’t possible to form a coalition with the Parti Québécois, and the other parties were too far away from your politics. So your position in the election is, we run as a strong opposition — we won’t be a part of any coalition.
AF: Our biggest support comes from the youth. They see that we are dynamic.
The Parti Québécois leader was an opportunist. He just wanted us riding slipstream to show that he was the one in charge. Also, if we had chosen to form a coalition, we never would have won our ten seats in the election. The PQ had also a right-wing perspective on immigration and an anti-labour record over the past years. So we made a good decision.
In my party, I was on the other side of the argument. I fought against staking out a position against coalitions. My reasoning was that a lot of our voters would turn and ask: What, exactly, are you running for? We had bad results in the last election. Angela Merkel was the chancellor of Germany — and everyone knew that she would be the chancellor after the election too. Because she was so popular. But when she decided not to run again, it created an opening. There was an opportunity for the people to decide on the next government.
For many people, this was the most important issue — electing the next government. And if we had said then, “We are not part of this fight”, we would have lost many more votes. Instead, we signalled our openness to a red-green government. Because even if the Greens are centrist and the Social Democrats are tainted by their neoliberal phase, there is still room for compromise.
AM: The parliamentary system in Quebec is different. Traditionally — up until ten years ago — it has been a two-party system. You always had one party or the other.
AF: A coalition here means that you don’t present a candidate against the other party in a race where the candidate has more support or is already an MNA. An agreement is reached with the other party beforehand — coalition parties won’t compete with one another. In that circumstance, QS was trapped: we had to stay only in races we had not much chance to win, at the same time we were giving our support and credibility to Parti Québécois. That was the goal the Parti Québécois was looking for.
Socialist Party Politics
In US politics, the word “socialism” still has negative connotations — it can be wielded as an accusation. As a socialist party, are you on the receiving end of such accusations here? Is this a problem? Is it an issue at all?
AF: Not really. Sometimes. But our biggest support comes from the youth. They see that we are dynamic. Our perspective is attractive to them. We represent the future.
AM: We participate in “Fridays For Future” — demonstrations for climate justice inspired by Greta Thunberg and strikes. We are the first ones there on the picket lines.
In the last elections in Germany, the youth voted, of course, for the Green Party. I always say: green is green, red is red. If the youth cohort is thinking about the environment, they vote green. But they often fail to look at the party’s actual positions.
The shock in the last election was that the second-strongest party was the neoliberal Free Democratic Party. We used to be the party that had the youth behind us. There’s no rule stating that it will stay like that forever. We have lost the youth vote — it’s horrible.
AM: I think what helps us with the Fridays For Future environmental movement is the popularity of [party spokesperson] Manon Massé. She’s our point person — she is a sparkling personality and the people love her. She is a part of the LGBTQ community. She is also a feminist. Young people appreciate her because she fights for trans rights and she fights for the environment. And that doesn’t mean that we’re only talking to the youth. We talk to everybody on the Left. But it’s the young members who have the energy to put the fliers out. They’re also the ones who have to contend with the future.
We recently had a debate about a “Mosaic Left”, which is a left-wing bloc created by inviting several movements into a party. Our challenge is that the history of the bigger wing of our party comes from a very, very traditional Socialist Party, which was organized from top to bottom. For many of the members, it is not easy to grasp the concept of grassroots movements. There is a predisposition to rely on a party board that makes decisions.
Our party is the result of a merger between the Party for Democratic Socialism, which emerged from formerly communist East Germany, and a split in the Social Democratic Party. Neither party had much use for grassroots movements.
AM: That’s the difference. Manon Masse, our female spokesperson, is a known feminist organizer. She was a core organizer of the Bread and Roses March in the mid-1990s. Women from all across Quebec participated — it was a march against women’s poverty. And that march sowed the seeds for the annual Women’s March. I was in Brazil at the time, and I remember people talking about the women in Quebec.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is our male spokesperson. He was an important leader in the student movement. He led three hundred thousand people in the streets ten years ago. So we have comrades in the workers’ movement, in the students’ movement, in the migrant movement, and in the environment movement.
Is there a conflict between the union movement and the migrant movement?
AM: At the moment, no. I am part of the anti-racist movement and have helped out during the years. For instance, in 2016, we had a petition to create a national commission on systemic racism. And some people in the unions were appointed to this coalition. The same thing happens with energy-transition advocacy. We have a coalition for energy transition. And there are workers on the board.
But you have conflict between unions and environmentalists.
AM: Yes, but they come to the table. They are willing to come to the table and talk about the conflicts. It’s not a conflict of attrition.
We try to do the same thing in Germany too. But I am not too happy with the results. I’m always trying to understand the sources for the conflict. I think one reason is that we didn’t find a productive way to talk about the conflicts of interests. They are there. A coal-mining industry is not a sustainable industry. We have to close it down. But there are people working there. In the case of coal extraction, the industry may have a tradition and culture that goes back centuries. When young kids come in and occupy mining camps, it inevitably leads to conflicts with workers and their families. I don’t think we found a successful or productive way to attack this problem.
AM: In Quebec, we try to attack the problem through participatory processes. This entails making sure that stakeholders are all at the table. We call it a roundtable. Our energy transition roundtable had representatives from multiple constituencies: workers and community and youth participants. They all came to the table and tried to find common ground.
The ecological movement takes a participatory bent too. Everywhere in Montreal in Quebec, everyone’s talking about green transition. So it is easy to create a dialogue. The hook is making the discussion a strategy for addressing the divisions head-on. Because of this strategy, the question of energy became an issue that we were able to connect on.
Thank you, I think that we can learn a lot from your party in Germany. I know there are differences between our parties. But I think the way that QS is dealing with disparate interests and very different interest groups should be a model for our party too.