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Mélenchon: Left Wing Populism à La Française?

Months of campaigning draw to a close on Sunday as France votes in the first round of its presidential elections. For much of this time, the two finalists predicted to go through to the next round have been the far right candidate Marine Le Pen and the centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Unprecedentedly, neither Le Pen nor Macron stand for one of the two main parties that have dominated post-war France. The institutions of the Fifth Republic, a system made to measure by and for Charles de Gaulle, have long worked to turn political parties into machines that carry lone men to the presidency. As its bitterest detractors put it, France cut off the head of their king only to enthrone another in the Élysée.

Now both the Socialist and the Republican parties find themselves with inadequate leaders, however, they are imploding. Macron, who is widely expected to beat Le Pen in the second round in May, has no solution to this problem. Indeed, he hopes to profit from it – his movement ‘En Marche!’, proposes to ‘liberate’ the country from its old ideological confrontations, co-opting as much as possible of the old political class on the way. On the cards? Third Way neoliberalism à la Blair, albeit with the youngest and most photogenic face it’s yet to wear.

On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his ‘Unsubmissive France’ movement has a more radical proposition – no less than the democratic re-foundation of the republic through a people’s constituent assembly. Also on the programme: massive investment in renewables, a shift away from American diplomatic hegemony and the German government’s line on the EU’s fiscal policy, and a vigorous assault on poverty, precarity and inequality. It’s a project that many political commentators were happy with making only passing references to whilst it seemed Mélenchon had no chance of putting it into action. This changed around three weeks ago when his movement suddenly started snowballing support in the opinion polls. With only a few days remaining, Mélenchon stands in striking distance of the second round.

Although sometimes painted as an ‘anti-system’ candidate, the 65-year-old has a long history in politics. Born in Morocco in the dying days of French colonialism, he worked as a journalist and a French teacher before joining the Socialist party in 1976. He was elected to France’s upper house as its youngest ever senator, and went on to serve in Lionel Jospin’s 1998-2002 Socialist government as deputy minister for professional education. He suffered a deep bout of depression when the electoral upset of 2002 occurred and Jean-Marie Le Pen beat Jospin to second place, until now the only time the Front National have made it so far.

It took involving himself in the rebellious and victorious ‘No’ campaign of the EU constitutional referendum in 2005 to finally pull Mélenchon out of this dark period. He cites it as his foremost formative experience, where he realized: “There was a vast mass of people that we had kept cooking away in a pot, and I had been one of those helping to hold the lid down.” Though he had always been on the left of his party, this experience set him on a path to direct confrontation with its leadership – including the then first secretary François Hollande. He quit the Socialists in 2008 and formed the Left party, based on the German Linke. He then sought an alliance with the Communist party, and with others succeeded in uniting most of the anti-neoliberal left under the banner of the ‘Left Front’, the coalition for which he stood as a presidential candidate in 2012. His final score of 11%, or nearly 4 million votes, was the best result the radical left had achieved since the heyday of the Communist party in 1981.

Mélenchon’s 2017 campaign departs in many ways from its precursor, but retains a number of key propositions: a Sixth Republic, ‘green’ central planning, and maximum ratio of 20:1 between the largest and smallest salaries. But whereas the previous programme was above all the product of a coalition of parties, greater efforts have been made in this campaign to involve civil society in a collaborative process where parties have less of a voice overall.

Similarly, whilst the Communists eventually voted to support the campaign, they were not consulted on this second run at the presidency. As Mélenchon puts it, he “proposed” his candidacy, and those who wish to support him can. The strategy, in both the political project and his candidacy, is to turn away from addressing the ‘Left’ in order to address the ‘people’.

On the ground, among the 3,000 support groups that have sprung up, the mot d’ordre is to campaign in whatever way suits you. Equipment and ideas are available on the campaign website, but strict instructions are not. As campaign manager Sophia Chirikou puts it: “The aim is to be outpaced by the energy that we unleash”. It is online where this ambition has been especially realized. Activists from the open-source software community have built tools like the Mélenphone, a peer-to-peer phone bank that is driving 3,000 calls a daily, and Fiscal Kombat, a video game where Mélenchon’s avatar beats up capitalists who have stolen public money, played by over 400,000 people within days of its release.

The campaign in general is making use of the internet and the alternative medias that operate upon it in an unprecedented way for French politics. The campaign’s YouTube channel, whilst small compared to the big names of the platform, has nonetheless gained over 20 million views, which is considerably more than any of Mélenchon’s opponents. It’s also an important step in combatting a media representation that is often warped in a country where 90% of the press is owned by eight capitalists.

Never has this been more obvious than since Mélenchon abruptly surged in the polls. The right wing press has launched an assault on the candidate, claiming he has a soft spot for Putin (he doesn’t) and that his economic policy is basically communism (it isn’t). This is not to say that there aren’t valid criticisms to be made. The programme is highly ambitious, and would require a significant curbing of powerful interests. Institutional resistance would be robust. Hollande attempted to instate a 75% top tax rate in 2012, but this was undone by the constitutional court – it’s hard to see how they would allow 90% to pass. Furthermore, for all the power that is concentrated in the presidency, a majority in the National Assembly would be necessary. If the presidency is within reach thanks to direct suffrage, the Assembly is anything but. Realistically, the movement would need to ally itself with the Socialist party, but only if there is anything left of it.

To these problems and others, Mélenchon maintains that the solution lies with the people. The populism of Ecuador’s Raffael Correa is clearly an influence for the movement, and Mélenchon is convinced that the key to victory lies in inspiring all who have withdrawn from politics – a high proportion of around 30%. But his all or nothing strategy is dangerous. The window of opportunity is small, with the French right having something of a Tea Party moment which could unloose the same kind of forces that Trump’s victory did across the Atlantic. If the movement wins on Sunday, it could set off a chain of positive political changes that would be felt across Europe, but in the event of failure, a resurgent right with the Front National at an all time high could make a clean sweep of the institutions. If this happens, the movement must aim to continue to develop regardless, going beyond Jean-Luc Mélenchon as an individual. Otherwise, the French left runs the risk of falling into the same kind of disarray we’ve seen in the rest of Europe.

Published 19th April 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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