The Mélenchon campaign has breathed new life into the French left in recent weeks, soaring to a competitive position in the polls and drawing tens of thousands to rallies.
But after his narrow defeat today, questions still linger. What does Mélenchon represent? What can the origins of his France Insoumise [Rebellious France] tell us about its politics? And where is it likely to go next?
Grégory Bekhtari, a member of the radical left formation Ensemble!, which supported the Mélenchon campaign, explores these questions beginning with Mélenchon’s 2008 departure from the Socialist Party (PS).
Jean-Luc Mélenchon began his political career as first a councilor then a senator for the Socialist Party (PS) from the mid-1980s, where he was a leader of a minority current on the party’s left wing. He broke with France’s leading social-democratic force in 2008 to create the Left Party (PG) – at that time modeled on Germany’s Die Linke – which in turn founded the Left Front (FDG) in alliance with the French Communist Party (PCF) and Unitary Left (GU).
Mélenchon’s trajectory toward the Left was from the outset marked by his opposition to the social and economic policies of the European Union, based on the ultra-liberal treaties and directives supported by the PS. In 2005 he led a victorious “No” campaign in the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty when, acting in the name of his minority tendency and in defiance of the PS leadership, he formed an alliance including the PCF and the Revolutionary Communist League (ancestor of today’s New Anticapitalist Party), among others. The political laboratory constituted by this battle helped Mélenchon to believe that a new force could exist outside the PS: one with a majoritarian calling, and putting forward a truly left-wing line.
In 2012, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was the Left Front’s candidate at the presidential elections. After an active and popular campaign in which numerous open-air rallies transformed into assemblies of many tens of thousands of people, he secured 11 percent of the vote. This was a disappointing score in light of the upward dynamic of his campaign, which found a major echo among people who had participated in the social movements resisiting Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. Nor were many Left Front MPs elected at the parliamentary elections six weeks later. The idea of allowing people to join the Left Front directly as individuals was rapidly abandoned, and the capital built during the presidential campaign was gradually squandered.
Inertia and strategic disagreements prevented the Left Front, for which Jean-Luc Mélenchon was spokesperson, from developing. The conflicts between him and the PCF leadership multiplied as the two battled for hegemony. Mélenchon would justify his refusal to make compromises within the Left Front’s collective structures for decision-making and action on the basis that he opposed the PCF’s continued privileging of governmental alliances with the PS in the first round of local elections, an arrangement they made in the hope of maintaining their own party machine. At the same time, the trade union and social movements were struggling to mobilize against the series of attacks (on pensions, the ‘responsibility pact’, or finance minister Emmanuel Macron’s ‘economic growth’ bill) imposed by the Socialist government.
In February 2016 Jean-Luc Mélenchon publicly announced his candidacy for the presidential election, without having discussed this with his Left Front partners, the PCF and Ensemble! (E!). Mélenchon rejected the idea, at that time promoted by the PCF, of participating in a “primary of the Left.” In different configurations, this same primary idea was advanced both by civil society figures such as Thomas Piketty unhappy with the record of the Hollande presidency, and by a PS leadership itself seeking a means of legitimizing the existing president re-standing despite having hit historic lows in terms of popularity ratings. In presenting his new ‘France Insoumise’ project, Jean-Luc Mélenchon demonstrated in practice that he now considered the Left Front experience was over.
A Populist Turn
Asked by journalists on the evening of its what the base of support was for his new project, Mélenchon replied “convictions, that’s the most important thing, and perhaps the French people. We cannot do any of what I have just said so long as we are tied up in the European treaties.”
Indeed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon explicitly draws inspiration from the theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe – an official supporter of his – adopting the formulas already used by Podemos, defining the ‘people’ against the ‘caste’ or the ‘oligarchy’. His adoption of this approach is clearly expounded in books such as L’ère du peuple [The Era of the People] or Le Choix de l’insoumission [The Choice to Rebel]. Mélenchon no longer uses the term ‘left-wing’, which in his view has been corrupted by the PS’s record in power and unattractive to the wider public. This discourse is also apparent in the position he has taken as a politician who directly addresses the population without the intermediary of a political party and its decision-making structures – not even the party of which he is still a member, the Left Party (PG). He has instead privileged the creation of France Insoumise, a new movement without elected structures whose base unit is the local ‘support group’ backing his candidacy.
Initially, citizens were called upon to join this movement in order to support Mélenchon’s presidential campaign. They were then offered the chance to participate in writing his program, in the form of online contributions that were then logged and synthesized, and then in choosing the candidates presented by France Insoumise in the parliamentary elections that will follow shortly after the presidential contest. As with Podemos, FI criticizes the ‘party’ form as out of date and unable to rise to the challenge of the current crisis of democracy. France Insoumise’s open and loose structure is held up as a factor that will help rally discontented citizens who no longer want to submit to the French ‘political class’ that runs the Fifth Republic.
However, the key posts animating and directing the France Insoumise campaign are entrusted to individuals close to Mélenchon, indeed almost all of them members of the Left Party. Today close to 400,000 people have signed up to an online declaration of support. The candidate claims an official total of 125,000 members involved in his support groups. There are probably around 15,000 militants who are actively campaigning as part of France Insoumise.
Rupture and renewal
The “Future in Common” programme was adopted in October 2016 at a convention bringing together 1,000 people, two-thirds of whom had been selected by lot. The declared intention of including new Insoumis in writing this program did not prevent it from – logically enough – being influenced by the 2012 Left Front program, as well as the Left Party’s theses on ecosocialism and strategy of a ‘Plan B’ for the European Union. Out of all the measures proposed, four main ideas particularly strongly come across in his campaign communications: the transition to the Sixth Republic, breaking with the European treaties, ecological planning, and greater independence for French foreign policy.
France Insoumise calls for the “abolition of the presidential monarchy,” challenging the role of president as well as that of the upper chamber (the Senate). It proposes the calling of a Constituent Assembly upon Mélenchon’s election as president. This would be the founding event of a Sixth Republic. After the work of writing a new constitution integrating new universal rights is complete, he would then resign as president and call new parliamentary elections.
It also calls for a “plan B” for the European Union, if its plan A — i.e. securing the passing of new European treaties, based on a democratic, social and ecological refoundation of the EU — should fail. Jean-Luc Mélenchon says that he has drawn the conclusions of Syriza’s failure in power in Greece, and that he is ready to use all the means of pressure available to a country like France – the world’s sixth-leading economic power – to break with Europe’s policies of budget austerity, free trade and destroying public services. In particular, this could involve restoring capital controls and checks on goods at the border, should this prove necessary. He is also strongly opposed to signing the CETA and TAFTA accords backed by the European Commission.
France Insoumise advocates an ecologically-sustainable social model: i.e. never to take more from nature than it is able to reproduce, and never to produce more than nature can withstand. This ‘green rule’ at the foundation of the ecological transition Jean-Luc Mélenchon advocates implementing would also be written into the new constitution. Among other things it implies a break with nuclear and carbon-based energy, setting the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
It advocates France’s diplomatic and military independence, considering the country today to be subordinate to foreign powers. In its view this policy should proceed through leaving NATO and ending successive French governments’ permanent support for belligerent US interventions. It also means an end to accords with the Gulf petro-monarchies. In parallel to that, this policy would also involve building a new alter-globalist alliance together with the BRIC countries.
A campaign of breakthroughs, good enough for Netflix
The beginnings of the France Insoumise campaign were somewhat understated. The first few months corresponded to the long street mobilizations against the Loi Travail, which from March to June 2016 allied sizeable strikes and demonstrations to the Nuit Debout movement. This latter clearly shone a light on the democratic and institutional crisis in France. When, by last autumn, the failure of this mobilization had already become tangible, a certain proportion of the workers active in this battle began to consider France Insoumise to be a kind of political extension of their protest, at least by default.
Yet Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s candidacy struggled to unite forces to the Left of the Socialist Party. His Left Front partners did not appreciate seeing him proclaim himself a candidate, or indeed the mechanics of his campaign, which only afforded a consultative role to the parties committing to his cause – thus preventing their leaderships from being able to shape his program and the line he put forward. As well as this anti-pluralist modus operandi, some of his politically problematic media sorties were also a turn-off for PCF and Ensemble! militants, for instance when he spoke of detached workers ‘stealing the bread’ of the French; with regard to migrants, when the first idea he expounded was that he had ‘never been for freedom of movement’; with regard to the war in Syria, seeing Bashar al-Assad as a lesser evil faced with Da’esh; or in terms of his refusal to recognise the existence of a Russia imperialism, itself at work in this conflict. Despite his repeated defensive claims – which have consisted of responding that his arguments and his positions were being mischaracterized in order to damage him – we cannot totally dismiss the argument that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has sought to deploy buzzwords able to attract the attention of disoriented voters tempted either to abstain or else to vote for the Front National.
In late autumn 2016, when no other more unitary alternative was on the horizon, the PCF and Ensemble! did ultimately give their official support to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, albeit without joining France Insoumise. After president François Hollande’s surprise announcement that he would not be standing again, the political debate focused on the ‘primaries of the Left’. Mélenchon decided to boycott this contest, despite the Socialist Party leadership’s repeated invitations for him to take part. More than two million people voted, unexpectedly giving Benoît Hamon a majority in the second round, and thus eliminating the favored candidate, former prime minister Manuel Valls. It was as if we were witnessing the revenge of the PS electoral base, with the party’s most left-wing current winning out over the person who symbolized its most liberal, authoritarian and securitarian tendency, and best incarnating the disastrous record the party has built up during the current Socialist president’s term in office.
Here also began a difficult period for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, falling below 10 percent in the opinion polls for the first time. There was a proliferation of appeals for unity and other petitions calling on him to rally behind Hamon in order to allow a Left victory. Indeed, the France Insoumise campaign had been designed to fight Hollande, calling on the electorate to punish his record by voting Mélenchon. This lost a great deal of its sense now that he was instead faced with Hamon, himself representing a line critical of Hollande’s term in office. The Socialist candidate moreover demonstrated his greater capacity to symbolize the unity of the Left as he won the Greens’ candidate Yannick Jadot to his own cause.
Rejecting any debate or public confrontation with Hamon over their areas of convergence and disagreement, Mélenchon ultimately sealed a non-aggression pact with the Socialist candidate. However, two factors – one external to his campaign, and the other internal – allowed him to emerge from this difficult period, and avoid his tactical difficulties faced with the Socialist candidate leading to his definitive marginalization in the presidential race. The first factor was the pressure exercised by the candidacy of Emmanuel Macron – i.e. Hollande’s former finance minister – on the official Socialist Party candidate. The announcements of leading PS cadres rallying to Macron multiplied, to the point that Manuel Valls publicly made known that we would vote for this neoliberal candidate claiming to dissolve the Left/Right divide, rather than for Hamon. This latter thus seemed less and less able to rally the PS, the majority of whose party machine does not really support him. This is a problem for someone who claims to be bringing together the whole Left.
In parallel to this, the France Insoumise media strategy began to pay off. Its communications officer Sophia Chikirou says that she has drawn the lessons of Podemos’ and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, both of which she saw first-hand. She drove Mélenchon to go around the big traditional media and to take over the web, indeed becoming the candidate with the greatest online presence. He is by far the most followed, whether through his YouTube channel or Facebook and Twitter. He picked up on geek culture in order to secure the support of a very active network of cyber-militants and the youth in general: interventions on the jeuxvideos.com forum, online TV shows, his ‘hologram meetings’, the cartoon version of his programme and, most recently, the creation of an online video game Fiscal Kombat, of which he is the hero. This has been so effective that Jean-Luc Mélenchon today holds a lead in youth voting attentions, dethroning Marine Le Pen with his 29 percent level of support among eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s current breakthrough took place in two stages, each connected to the two major TV debates in late March and early April that faced off the different candidates. The first took place only a few days after a France Insoumise demonstration for the Sixth Republic, followed by a rally in Place de la Bastille bringing together 120,000 people, according to organizers (and in any case 70,000 people at a minimum). In the televised debate Mélenchon appeared a lot more convincing than Hamon, or indeed any of the other candidates. This was the moment when the PS candidate began to decline, and that was only confirmed after the second debate. The skilful and sharp attacks from the far-Left candidates Nathalie Arthaud (Lutte Ouvrière – Workers’ Fight) and Philippe Poutou (NPA – New Anticapitalist Party) against the right-wing conservative François Fillon and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen – both of them weighed down by fraud accusations – as well as Macron – accused of having no idea of ordinary workers’ everyday existence – themselves helped Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who himself concentrated on his programme’s element of political renewal.
He came out of the debate as the most effective left-wing vote among all the ‘big candidates’. Even beyond the Left, he exercises a certain force of attraction among former right-wing voters seduced by his integrity and his calls for a clean break, which are interpreted as a promise to put an end to a system that today profits only the ‘political class’ and the ‘oligarchy’. Thus just days before the election he finds himself in third place in the polls, tied with Fillon. The possibility of Mélenchon reaching the second round – and even winning a run-off against Le Pen – is thus coming into view, against all expectations.
Where next for France Insoumise?
The fact that a candidate from the radical Left has been able to appear as the ‘remedy’ solution in a French presidential election itself poses further questions. The level of social conflict and mobilization in France is not comparable to what Greece and Spain have seen in recent years. Moreover, the dynamic of the France Insoumise campaign is not noticeably stronger than the Left Front’s was in 2012. The organizational rigidity of its structures – which are also undemocratic – is also a brake to both the integration of other political currents and the engagement of militant layers coming from the social and trade union movements.
This limit is however partially compensated by the effectiveness of the aggressive campaign that has been waged online. Moreover, playing down traditional Left and class-struggle discourse in favor of a much vaguer and more ambiguous signifier like ‘the people’ is a debatable response to the current political conjuncture, in which most of the French population is without political bearings, caught in a doubtless irreversible process of alienation from the old governing parties. But this is a response that could bear fruits – at least in electoral terms – winning against three other candidates who each have numerous weaknesses and repel a considerable part of the electorate. In contrast, the hitherto divisive Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently adopted the less jagged, more reassuring figure of the pedagogue and potential founding father of a new regime. The ruling class has not been fooled by this, and has begun to build up a media campaign demonizing the France Insoumise candidate.
Since his rise in the polls, his discourse on immigration has considerably improved (proposing mass regularization measures, and holding a minute of silence at his Marseilles rally for the thousands of dead migrants). Has he perhaps taken into account the stance of Benoît Hamon, who won the primaries on the basis of a discourse that was clearly favorable to welcoming migrants? Has he been emboldened, no longer so troubled by Le Pen’s success pushing him to silence his own positions in this regard? Even his position on Syria – while remaining problematic – now adopts a more nuanced and balanced aspect. There are still, of course, several problems, starting with France Insoumise’s social-chauvinist line, with its blindness to French imperialism and inability to think about resident foreigners’ place in this country except in terms of republican ideology’s traditional assimilationist project, seeing France itself as the embodiment of universalism.
The strategy of social transformation via a revolution at the ballot box leaves a lot of room for doubt. We can expect a violent reaction by the bourgeoisie to protect its power and privileges. But in the current context, the hope of the step forward that could come from France Insoumise taking power, and the possibility that a period of radicalisation would follow, appear better able to mobilize the masses than any abstract warning of the future betrayals that may come from Jean-Luc Mélenchon once he is elected president.