Jean-Luc Melenchon during a protest over the government's labour reforms, Place de la Republique, Paris, September 23, 2017. Lafargue Raphael/Press Association. All rights reserved.The most remarkable outcomes of the 2017 presidential and legislative elections are the unexpected victory of Emmanuel Macron, a young untested politician, who is challenging the traditional left-right cleavage as well as the sudden collapse of the Parti socialiste (PS) whose future as a major political force is now in doubt.
But the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (Unbowed France, FI) who professes a brand of ‘left-wing populism’ is indeed another major development in French politics. Mélenchon’s populism arguably kept Le Pen’s populism at bay by framing the terms of the debate along socio-economic lines. He consequently managed to neutralise Le Pen’s ethnocentric politics. Mélenchon’s populism arguably kept Le Pen’s populism at bay by framing the terms of the debate along socio-economic lines.
From traditional left-wing politics to ‘left-wing populism’: epistemological break?
In February 2016, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who left the PS in 2008 – ‘proposed his candidacy’ to the nation on TF1, the main private channel in France. His ambition was to run a campaign ‘above political parties.’ In 2012, as presidential candidate for the Front de gauche (FDG), Mélenchon received the support of several left-wing parties and was clearly identified as a leftist candidate.
In 2017, he ostensibly turned his back on the history, culture and unity of the left. In typical populist fashion, he sought the support of ‘ordinary people.’ France insoumise is not a party, but a ‘mass of citizens.’ Since then, he has aggressively pursued this tack. His goal is no longer a matter of rallying left-wing forces together (behind him) but rather of replacing them, and reshaping the partisan and political landscape.
In 2012, the campaign rallying cry was: ‘Qu’ils s’en aillent tous!’ (They must all go!’) The ‘they’ referred to the ‘corrupt élite.’ This is the like-for-like translation of ¡Que se vayan todos!, a slogan borrowed from the Piquetero movement in Argentina in 2005. In 2017, Mélenchon referred to ‘dégagisme’ (the act of clearing off), an expression coined during the revolutions in North Africa, notably in Tunisia.
What is most remarkable is Mélenchon’s change of vocabulary and register since the 2012 campaign. The FI leader wants to stop using the traditional language and discursive imaginary of the left. This is of course much in line with Podemos’s attempt to ‘spread the ideas of the left in a language geared toward the common sense of the social majority’.
The idea is to rally ‘people’ from different political and ideological backgrounds against the ‘oligarchy.’ Thus, Mélenchon banned red flags from his rallies, and he stopped singing the Internationale at the end of each public meeting. Those traditional left-wing symbols were replaced by tricolour flags and La Marseillaise. This raised a few eyebrows on the left as the national flag and the national anthem have been the emblem of the right and far right for a long time. Left-wing symbols which are deeply ingrained in the culture of the French left were deemed too divisive or simply meaningless to the mass of people with whom FI wished to connect.
Another important ‘signifier,’ in the sense given by Ernesto Laclau, is the promotion of a 6th Republic in replacement of the 5th Republic. Mélenchon and his followers have been promoting a new Republic which would break with the pomp of the current institutions. The 5th Republic does indeed confer on the president tremendous power. The aim is first and foremost to address the democratic deficit at the heart of the current institutions. In 2014, Mélenchon conceived and launched the Mouvement pour la 6e République (Movement For a 6th Republic / M6R), a loose structure.
At that time, Mélenchon published L’Ère du Peuple (The Time of the People), an early attempt to spell out if not theorise the new major cleavage between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’ or ‘the caste’. This essay is an ideological turning point. Mélenchon bids farewell to an interpretation of society and of conflicts based on class. He stops referring to the notion of class struggles altogether. This is obviously a major break with Marxist theory and left-wing politics. Instead of addressing a politically and culturally fragmented proletariat, Mélenchon argues that progressive politics should aim to gather together ‘the people’ beyond their class, race and gender differences. Mélenchon argues that progressive politics should aim to gather together ‘the people’ beyond their class, race and gender differences.
Mélenchon points out that unifying ‘the people’ is a three-stage process. Firstly, the people, which he calls homo urbanus as they essentially live in urban areas, is the multitude of depoliticised individuals who go about their daily routine. Secondly, there are the politically conscious individuals who start taking action and make political claims. Thirdly, a network constitutes itself through collective action.
Several questions arise. Mélenchon does not convincingly explain how the people as multitude can overcome its divisions and conflicts (class, gender, ethnic). The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Mélenchon has adopted a resolutely ‘interclassist’ approach to building a majoritarian bloc. Syriza and Podemos in Spain attempted to follow a similar path earlier on, with mixed results, but steady electoral progress.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon also believes that the era of ‘the party’ as coordinator and aggregator of popular demands and expectations and as vanguard has died. The ‘movement’ has replaced the party. The organisation should now be ‘transversal’ and not vertical (as in traditional socialist/communist parties). The question of ‘tranversality’ refers to democracy: who makes the programme? Who decides to select the main policy proposals? There are of course open procedures (notably on the internet) for FI supporters to make such proposals. It remains to be seen whether they are genuinely democratic and transparent.
Critics have argued that although promoting the creation of a 6th Republic, Mélenchon has fully embraced the very personalised traditions of the 5th Republic, notably by dispensing with political parties and seeking to create a personal relationship with the French people. Emmanuel Macron and to a lesser extent Marine Le Pen have done the same. This stance bears all the characteristics of a populist stand. Jean-Luc Mélenchon also believes that the era of ‘the party’ as coordinator and aggregator of popular demands and expectations and as vanguard has died.
So which populism? Where does Mélenchon’s populism come from? Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau have undoubtedly been a major influence on him. The FI leader has also established contacts with Podemos’s leader Pablo Iglesias. He was close to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
Personal and ideological change
Chantal Mouffe believes that Mélenchon and FI embody the ‘populist moment’ that Spain experienced with Podemos a few years earlier: people reject ‘post-democracy’ and ‘demand a real participation in political decisions.’ FI aims to federate ‘the people’ (i.e. the working classes and the middle classes). The Belgian political theorist argues that Mélenchon has recognised the ‘crucial role of emotions in constructing political identities.’
Mouffe points to Mélenchon’s efforts to make up ‘chains of equivalence’ between various groups of dominated or marginalised groups in society (whatever the objective social class they belong to). Mouffe makes a distinction between the Latin American context (societies with powerful, entrenched oligarchies) and Europe (where the left-right divide remains key). Given that our European societies are being ‘Latin-Americanised’, she advocates an end to the domination of an oligarchic system, by way of a democratic reconstruction.
The Greek letter Phi (φ) has become the movement’s logo, used everywhere including on ballot papers. The word Phi allows some wordplay: it sounds like FI, the France Insoumise acronym. Phi also evokes philosophy, harmony and love and is unburdened by a political past. It is a symbol of neither right nor left, a neutral marker.
Over the months, language, symbols and communication techniques have indeed changed. For instance, as a familiar and ‘inclusive’ form of address, Mélenchon uses the expression les gens (people), which was popularised in Spain by Podemos leaders (la gente).
Mélenchon has taken stock of the traditional media’s declining influence. He has worked on his image down to the smallest details (such as the clothes he wears on different occasions, less formal and closer to that of ordinary citizens). He likes PR stunts, such as using holograms to address two rallies simultaneously. He works very closely with PR consultants. He is a professional politician, more than at any time in the past.
His economic program has not changed much qualitatively since 2012. It is not anti-capitalist or radically leftist. It essentially promotes a radical Keynesian approach with a far greater emphasis on ecological policies than in the past. He wants to abolish the reform of the Labour Code which was carried out by the socialist government and opposes the (TTIP) with the United States and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada.
France Insoumise and the ‘old world’
The FI leader’s objective is to replace those ‘old’ parties: all stand accused of ganging up to block FI’s progress. Hence his sticking to a strict policy of non-alliance with other forces on the left locally. For Mélenchon does not simply take note of their decline, he actively wants to marginalise them.
In this respect, the anti-party stances of FI and Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) are the two sides of the same coin.
This uncompromising stand is the source of extreme tensions on the left. This raises the issue of coalition formation to oppose Emmanuel Macron’s policies in the National Assembly and outside of it. With about 12-14% of the share of the vote nationally, FI is far from being in a position to challenge LREM on its own. Yet Mélenchon refuses to consider any type of alliance with other political forces of the left. He pejoratively describes those negotiations between parties as tambouille (grubbing). The anti-party stances of FI and Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) are the two sides of the same coin.
FI comes across as the archetypal post-modern organisation: there is no fee-paying membership, so it is not possible to formally join in. Mélenchon claims that FI is now the biggest organisation in French politics on the grounds that over 500,000 internet users have registered on his campaign website by simply clicking on the page as a sign of support for his presidential candidacy.
Since the announcement of Mélenchon’s candidacy to the presidential election back in February 2016, there has been no leadership contest to elect the FI leader or the party representatives. One cannot join in FI as an organised party but only as an individual. This is a major difference with FDG which regrouped several parties. The party therefore loses its name, identity and political orientation. Thus, there would be no room within FI for a French equivalent of Anticapitalistas, a far-left faction in Podemos and one of the founding factions of the new Spanish party.
The organisation also has highly unusual rules: support groups cannot have more than 15 members, and should not coordinate their work between each other within larger geographic zones. There should be no local FI conventions or general assemblies. These rules which have not always been discussed nor abided by locally obviously strengthen the authority of the national leadership. FI has a horizontal and informal type of organisation on the local level and a tight vertical control by the leadership on the national level. The core leadership group is drawn from Parti de Gauche (Mélenchon’s former party). FI has a horizontal and informal type of organisation on the local level and a tight vertical control by the leadership on the national level.
A staunch patriotism
Patriotism is, for left-wing populists, a very positive value. Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón have embraced the notion. They have sought to reclaim patriotism for ‘progressive ends’. This is a novelty in a country where Franco implemented a fascist regime in the name of the ‘patria’, its defence and values. Patriotism works here as an empty signifier in order to stir up a ‘new national spirit.’ For Iglesias, the notion of patriotism is a question that goes beyond left and right. This is about behaving in a ‘decent’ manner.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s traditional brand of republicanism has for long been patriotic. Most of his speeches are peppered with vibrant references to la patrie. The FI leader likes to quote in particular this famous Jean Jaurès sentence: ‘It may almost be said that, while a little dose of internationalism separates a man from his country, a large dose brings him back. A little patriotism separates from the Internationale; the higher patriotism brings him back to it.’ Based on strong revolutionary and republican principles, patriotism is largely perceived on the French left as an acceptable point of reference although not everyone would agree with it.
Mélenchon sees the unity of the Republic (France’s ‘one and indivisible’ according to the first article of the Constitution of the 5th Republic) as untouchable if not sacrosanct. For instance, he inveighs against the European Regional Languages Charter on the grounds that it grants ‘specific rights’ to people according to their linguistic practice. The then European Member of Parliament argued that this would be contrary to the principle of equality of all citizens before the French law.
The FI leader is also a patriot of a more conservative type. The FI leader sings the praises of France as global power, spanning all the world’s seas and oceans. He wants France to quit NATO, for instance, but, like Charles de Gaulle, in order to better defend its interests and prestige around the world. Mélenchon regards all French overseas territories, not as colonised countries, but as fully part of France. Mélenchon regards all French overseas territories, not as colonised countries, but as fully part of France.
Can left-wing populism work in France? Can a movement launched by one man to support an electoral campaign become a major progressive force? Contrary to Syriza and Podemos which both originated from various social movements, France Insoumise was engineered by one man for a specific political purpose.
Electoral polls show that FI’s electorate match the traditional pattern of left-wing voters: urban, youngish, public sector workers, educated, lower-middle class. Mélenchon did not attract a significant number of voters from the right or far right. He appealed to the young and working-class voters who normally do not vote. The irony is despite dismissing the notions of left and class, the sociology of Mélenchon’s electorate is clearly left-wing and their vote is a class vote against the right and extreme right. In other words, the FI’s electorate was attracted in the first place by Mélenchon’s left-wing social democratic programme.
One may wonder whether populism is the best strategy to broaden the left’s electorate. Left-wing and right-wing populisms arguably do not tap into the same culture and do not express the same feelings. On the left, the anger is directed at free market economics. On the far right, the hatred of foreigners and immigrants is the main motivation. Both feelings and mindsets are incompatible: the former has a positive mindset whereas the latter is based on resentment. It would thus seem more beneficial from an electoral and political point of view to appeal to left-wing voters who abstain rather than try to lure right-wing voters who do not share the social justice agenda of the left.
 Philippe Marlière, ‘Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Policies Are No Far-Left Fantasies’, The Guardian, 15 April 2012.
 Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Qu’Ils S’En Aillent Tous! Vite, la Révolution Citoyenne. Paris, Flammarion, 2010, p. 13.
 César Rendueles, Jorge Sola, ‘Podemos and Paradigm Shift’, Jacobin, 13 April 2015.
 Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London, Verso, 2005.
 Jean-Luc Mélenchon, L’Ère du Peuple. Paris, Fayard, 2014.
 Chantal Mouffe, ‘French Presidential Candidate Mélenchon is a Radical Reformist Against Mounting Oligarchy’, Verso, 19 April 2017.
 Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Un Avenir En Commun. Le Programme de la France Insoumise et Son Candidat. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2016.
 Anne-Charlote Dusseaulx, ‘Les 10 Premières Mesures du Programme de Mélenchon’, Le Journal du Dimanche, 16 October 2016.
 Marc Bassets, ‘Spain’s New Patriots’, Dissent, Summer 2015.
 Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ‘Lettre aux Députés’, 21 January 2014, L’Humanité.
 Olivier Doubre. ‘Éric Fassin: Le Populisme de Gauche Est une Illusion Politique’, Politis, 27 March 2017.
 Éric Fassin, Populisme: le Grand Ressentiment, Paris, Textuel, 2017.