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The Politics of France Insoumise

In the wake of its impressive performance in last year’s presidential campaign, the movement around Jean-Luc Mélenchon has set about establishing a new kind of political organization.

Political meeting of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Toulouse, France on April 16, 2017. MathieuMD / Wikimedia

During last year’s French presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon impressed Europe’s left as he won almost 20 percent of the vote. Shortly after the election, Mélenchon’s left-populist party France Insoumise became the most visible opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal government, a role that it intends to strengthen by encouraging popular mobilization. For this reason, it has been constituted as a new kind of campaigning-focused political organization that aims to overcome the very notion of the political party. But many questions remain about this model. For instance, can it avoid the old problems of traditional parties, such as the top-down concentration of power?

Perry Anderson described France Insoumise’s April 2017 presidential campaign as “an impressive feat.” Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s rallies gathered huge crowds, and he was widely recognized as the winner of the televised debates. In the final weeks of the campaign he achieved a spectacular increase in his support. Despite this major advance, Mélenchon came in fourth place, after Emmanuel Macron, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, and François Fillon, the candidate of the conservative Les Républicains. In the parliamentary elections that took place in June, France Insoumise (FI) obtained seventeen seats, an insufficient number to have any real influence in parliamentary negotiations. Macron’s party La République En Marche secured a majority in the National Assembly, while Les Républicans came in second place.

If France Insoumise’s institutional power is limited, polls show that it has established itself as the main opposition to President Macron. On the center-left, the Parti Socialiste is going through an existential crisis after obtaining only 6 percent of the vote in the presidential election, and the Parti Communiste Français remains weak (though it did begrudgingly support Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential candidacy). On the Right, both the Front National (FN) and Les Républicains are also facing difficulties. While Les Républicains, long expected to win the election, are still recovering from their defeat, the FN is more divided than ever. Its chief strategist in the run-up to the election, Florian Philippot, was pushed aside and has now created his own organization, Les Patriotes. It was Philippot who authored the FN’s strategic turn to put social issues at the center of the agenda, a move which does much to explain its impressive electoral growth in recent years. Philippot’s resignation may mean that the far-right FN returns to more traditional nationalist positions, focused on immigration and cultural issues, combined with a more liberal approach on economic questions.

In this context, France Insoumise has at least three major resources that it can rely on while building itself as the main opposition to Macron and his neoliberal policies: Mélenchon’s charisma; the enthusiasm aroused by his presidential campaign; and the party’s parliamentary presence, which grants it a certain media visibility. FI intends to oppose Macron both in parliament and the streets, which also means using its platform to call for protests. The first test for this strategy arrived last September, when the party called a demonstration against Macron’s labor reform, which deepens the liberalization of labor relations and slashing of labor rights promoted by former president François Hollande. The protest was a success (around 100,000 people took part in the march) but it was not enough to stop the so-called XL labor reform, which was eventually approved in November. This raised the question of where the formation would go next.

An Action-Oriented Movement

In 2012, Jean-Luc Mélenchon ran for president with the support of the Front de Gauche, a coalition formed by the Parti de Gauche (founded by Mélenchon), the Parti Communiste Français and other left-wing forces such as Ensemble. Mélenchon’s first presidential campaign saw the staging of popular assemblies all over France, yet the movement did not survive the election, in which Mélenchon obtained 11 percent of the vote. The Front de Gauche performed poorly in following elections and it was eventually dissolved in 2016.

This time, FI leaders are doing their best to extend the impressive mobilization that took place during the recent presidential campaign for le tribun — as Mélenchon is known, on account of his skills as a speaker. The first National Convention of France Insoumise took place in Clermont-Ferrand this past November. The convention seems to have had two main objectives: strengthening the mobilization of the party’s militants (500,000 people are registered on its website as supporters) and building a cohesive political organization that overcomes some of the problems it perceives are faced by traditional left-wing parties, such as bureaucratization and myopia. The Clermont-Ferrand Convention defined France Insoumise as “an action-oriented movement,” which is not satisfied to wait until the next election to organize campaigns. Rather, it has created structures that can continue to encourage mobilizations.

These structures consist of an “espace des luttes” (a “space of struggle”) and numerous campaign “action groups.” The goal of the espace des luttes is to support local struggles led by unions and associations that correspond to the goals of social and ecological transformation expressed in FI’s programmatic manifesto, The Future in Common. The local action groups are the post-election continuation of more than 5000 “support groups” which played a major role in Mélenchon’s presidential campaign and which are now integrated into the FI’s structure. According to action groups’ charter, they “enjoy autonomy of action in accordance with the manifesto The Future in Common.” However, they do not have any power on issues such as selecting candidates, putting forward political proposals, or exercising control over the parliamentary group.

In the weeks leading up to the National Convention, many of the 700 online contributions to the debate on how FI should organize challenged elements of the action groups’ charter. According to the analysis proposed by Manuel Jardinaud on Mediapart, one of the most frequent complains related to the regulation that prevents local groups establishing “permanent intermediate structures” among themselves. The charter also “invites” groups to subdivide into two as soon as they reach fifteen members. This limit was sharply criticized by a militant from Cherbourg as a “segmentation strategy.” However, the charter justifies it on the basis that “smaller-sized groups allow the effective involvement of each member … and encourage a closer relationship with the local territory.”

In order to support these structures, FI has created an École Insoumise (a school for its militants) and played a key role in the creation of the online TV channel Le Média. Although co-created by a number of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s collaborators (such as Sophia Chikirou, his communications chief during the presidential campaign), Le Média has asserted its independence from FI and is not formally part of the party. The aim of all these efforts is “to enter into every nook and cranny of society,” according to its former presidential campaign director Manuel Bompard.

An intriguing element of FI’s mobilization strategy is its use of the “Alinsky method,” based on the record of the American community organizer Saul Alinsky. Popular with American NGOs. Its aim, as Leïla Chaibi explains, is to allow FI militants to identify small-scale social problems in their neighborhoods and help people get together to resolve them. Lastly, the “Caravans Insoumises” that toured France in the months prior to the presidential election continued their travels this summer, stopping in more than thirty towns and cities. Their aim is to help citizens access the social rights which they are entitled to but often denied due to bureaucratic hurdles. These tools are all part of an attempt by FI leaders to overcome the difficulty of maintaining a high level of social mobilization in non-electoral periods. As many left-wing formations have found over decades, that is not an easy challenge.

A New Kind of Political Organization

The Political Principles of France Insoumise, adopted at the Convention, established that “internal competition, conflicts among individuals [members] and factional disputes have no place” in FI. This strong concern for unity is directly related with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s past political experiences. Le tribun had a long political career before he created France Insoumise in 2016. He joined the Parti Socialiste in 1976 and was the youngest senator in France in 1986. In 2008, he left the Socialists and founded the Parti de Gauche, which then gave rise to the Front de Gauche. Over subsequent years, Mélenchon had a series of clashes with the Communists (PCF), who were part of the Front de Gauche but refused to cede their own branding for the sake of strengthening the Front. Mélenchon’s aim was to build a new party capable of challenging the Parti Socialiste’s hegemony over the Left. Indeed, France Insoumise has eventually done this even without the direct involvement of the PCF — though many PCF militants support FI.

France Insoumise is an attempt to transcend the fragmented landscape of the French left — and to do so without simply aggregating its existing fragments. This mission is clarified in the following section of its Political Principles:

This movement is not a party, nor a coalition of parties. A party is composed by supporters-contributors, organized in formalized territorial decision-making structures. Parties have their role to play. France Insoumise does not intend to replace them; rather, it seeks an organizational form that is free from relations of subordination. Within France Insoumise, both political groups and individuals who are not engaged in a party are invited to bring their abilities, their intellectual resources and their militant resources together.

Despite that definition, France Insoumise resembles a party in many ways, not least its aim of winning power through participation in elections. It has already put together a candidate-selection process for future contests. According to the FI website, candidates are selected by a commission consisting of four representatives of the espace des luttes, eight action group coordinators, and four representatives of the parties that support FI (Parti de Gauche, Ensemble!, Nouvelle Gauche Socialiste, and the Communistes insoumis group). However, it is true that France Insoumise’s structure does not correspond to the classical party form. Rather, it consists of a set of different poles, each with their own specific functions: the parliamentary group (led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and consisting of seventeen MPs), the espace des luttes, the operational team, the political space, and the programmatic space.

The so-called operational team, another action-oriented body, has the mission of “performing the operational tasks that are needed to carry out the movement’s campaigns.” Among others, it is responsible for coordinating the action groups, organizing national events, and creating campaign and communication material. The “political space” includes France Insoumise’s various party supporters, and is defined in the following terms:

This is not the decision-making organ of France Insoumise. It is not a deliberative space based on voting. Most importantly, it is not a cartel of organizations that enjoy “rights” within this space, each relating to the others as if in a destructive tug of war.… The [political] space functions through fraternity, mutual trust and consensus.

It will be interesting to see how this organ of France Insoumise develops. It appears to be a trade-off between Mélenchon and the parties that support him — but explicitly gives these parties no political rights in the project. Lastly, the programmatic space elaborates the content of The Future in Common manifesto and organizes educational sessions for militants.

None of these structures’ leaders is elected by the party members. France Insoumise has been emphatic that the logic of voting and representation has no place in its ranks. Most of the leading positions are held by members of the presidential campaign team as well as by representatives of the parties that support FI. In some cases, the logic of voting and representation has been replaced by random sortation. For example, most of those attending the Clermont-Ferrand Convention were selected by lot, from among the militants registered on the FI website who expressed a desire to be there.

The construction of a new kind of political organization has been one of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s priorities since the launching of France Insoumise in 2016. In an interview in Le 1 on October 18, 2017, he reaffirmed this aim by stating that France Insoumise “is not vertical or horizontal, but diffuse.” It is true that FI does not have the rigid or hierarchical structures that define classical political parties, but what it does have in common with most such parties is political power concentrated in relatively few hands.

High Hopes and Major Contradictions

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential campaign has undoubtedly woken the French radical left from its long lethargy, building a populist political organization that defends an unequivocally progressive program of social and ecological transformation. Having achieved an impressive electoral result, France Insoumise has now assumed the role of the main opposition to Macron and his neoliberal policies. FI leaders have understood that good electoral campaigns are not enough; the anti-establishment left needs to encourage social mobilizations and popular empowerment if it wants to win. This is the idea behind Podemos circles, Momentum chapters in the United Kingdom, and the community campaign unit that has recently been created by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. FI has conceived a wide array of mechanisms and tools to boost street mobilizations and spread the ideas and proposals of the Future in Common manifesto in French society more generally. This is an intelligent strategy that should also inspire other anti-establishment left parties.

At the same time, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his collaborators have created a new kind of political organization, which they refuse to call a party. Indeed, France Insoumise’s membership is flexible and there are no elected decision-making structures. This organizational model raises questions. Who, then, makes the decisions? How legitimate are France Insoumise’s present leaders? How much power do militants have? These questions recall the insights in American activist Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman argued that the absence of formal decision-making structures in political organizations is “a way of masking power,” and put forward a set of principles for promoting democracy which are applicable both to social movements and parties, such as the circulation of tasks, the distribution of authority among a wide array of individuals, and the accountability of leaders to the people who have elected them.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s concerns about infighting and self-absorption are justified and the aim of overcoming the Left’s fratricidal tradition is a worthy one. However, getting rid of voting and attributing most of the power within France Insoumise to non-elected individuals does not seem a sustainable means of avoiding these pitfalls. Divisions will arise at some point within FI (as they do in all political organizations) and the lack of democratically legitimized bodies capable of making decisions and resolving conflicts will then be a serious limitation. Most importantly, the disempowerment of FI militants with regard to decisions like selecting candidates could have a serious discouraging effect, jeopardizing the intensive efforts FI has made to drive social mobilization and popular empowerment. The good news is that France Insoumise is still a work in progress, more open to innovation than many older parties. Its leadership may still decide to introduce elements of internal democracy and accountability. This would strengthen Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement, adding to the threat that France Insoumise represents to the French and European establishment.