France: The left after the elections

Three pieces from the French left — by Roger Martelli, Flavia Verri and Samy Johsua, and Pierre Rousset — looking at French politics after the elections of Emmanuel Macron

Analysis: What Must the French Left do After the Legislative Elections?

By Roger MartelliKaos en la Red / The Dawn News — The decisive 2017 electoral cycle has ended. Politics are no better. The left as a whole has problems, but their more left-wing supporters are in a more favorable position. Which is an opportunity that calls us to redouble our efforts.To organize the peopleDispersion in the political arena, unusual levels of abstention, loss of power of traditional parties… All signs lead to the conclusion that there’s a real political crisis, combined with a regime crisis. Superficial changes in discourse and Constitutional amends are not enough and are useless. To facelift the left and change nothing is nonsensical. The times demand an unprecedented transformation in all senses. The left needs to be created from scratch again or metamorphosed—not developed.The “worker movement” has collapsed—the crisis of unions is a very important fact— without the “social movement” taking the lead. Radicalism isn’t exempt from the tension between a default pragmatism (with the pretext that utopia is not achievable) and the longing for “better days” (it’s not alway clear whether this is revolutionary hope or a remembrance of social democracy). The alleged “realism” that socialism defends is stranded in the sand, but the “alternative” has also not been able to prove its strength and credibility.Throughout the years, the French Communist Party has been immobile, remembering its days of glory, while the Socialist Party has become the “equitative manager” of global capitalism. Thus, both parties have ceased to be spaces for the promotion of the desires of the masses, especially workers and urban citizens. The violence of the political class, the increasing passivity of citizens and the force of the right-wing National Front are the stronger signs of this regressive process. Politics obey to the law of horror vacui: when the forces that exercise the strongest criticism aren’t up to the task, the place is free for improbable centrisms or violent alternatives from big and small “communities”.The disorder of society can’t be changed without human beings that make this possible. But the traditional left is in crisis. Communism and socialism, which gave structure to the left throughout the 20th century, are no longer capable of doing this task. Even the right/left polarization is in question since their ways to exercise power overlap. The conclusion is obvious for many: we need a new paradigm, where the goal is no longer uniting the left but regrouping the people—not against the right, but against the elite, both of the left and of the right.There’s much truth in this affirmation. The people have no representation in the institutional arena. Its strength lies its number (workers and employees represent two thirds of them) and its weakness in its level of dispersion. It is no longer a central, modern and expanding nucleus. And although its capability for struggle is intact, the heart of yesterday’s mass movement, blue-collar workers, is now not as firm. Unions are unclear regarding its forms and projects, the associative world is broken and what was once the great unifier of urban citizens (the big “social” dream) is still struggling to find its contemporary form to oppose the well-defined projects of the dominant forces.Therefore, mass organizations need to make a movement, like yesterday’s workers were able to build the workers movement. They must struggle and organize unhappiness so that fury becomes collective action—not just resentment. By uniting, they will become “multitude”. But that’s not enough, because society is not a simple juxtaposition of practices and specific structures—it’s a way to organize them. It has its coherence and its dominant logics. In world capitalism, we know the answer: accumulation of material goods, raw materials and profit are the motor; competence is the basis of all movement; management is the primary regulatory method; and inequality, polarization and relations of power are the axis of distribution of individuals, groups and territories. Primarily, it is the task of politics to act on these coherences and, to that end, group the minorities that can make the difference. If one wants to address the root of the social dynamic in order to transform it, the multitude of social struggles must become a political “people”.But what makes the masses a people is not only the notion of an adversary or an enemy. Pointing out the culprits behind the difficulties may be an initial lever, but it doesn’t guarantee long-term success. Most importantly, the causes of the problems must be revealed. The “people” struggle against those who exploit and dominate them (the “elite”). However, the people doesn’t become a central agent unless it imposes a coherent, realistic plan to abolish the mechanisms that cause the separation between the “people” and the “elite”, between exploited and exploiters, between proletariat and bourgeoisie. A project for the emancipation of the masses, not hatred towards the elite, is what transforms the multitude into a political people.

The electoral sequence in France: Resistance, but the oligarchy wins the first round

By Flavia Verri & Samy JohsuaInternational Viewpoint — The complete electoral sequence in France comprises a principal contest (the presidential election) and a more and more subordinate one (the legislative elections, which determine the composition of the National Assembly). Now that the sequence has been completed, we can draw an overall balance sheet, always provisional.These elections take place within the framework of a semi-presidential system, borrowing from the characteristics of both a parliamentary system and a presidential system: the head of the executive, the President of the Republic, elected by universal suffrage, has strong powers but must obtain parliamentary support in order to govern. Emmanuel Macron and his movement “En marche” (now called “La République en marche”, REM) obtained an absolute majority in the Assembly. But they did so in a context of decomposition and recomposition on both the right and the left, whose dynamics and outcome are uncertain. The presidential election reflects the crisis of political identification and the splintering of the general landscape. The legislative elections confirmed this. This does not only affect political organizations. The social movement has been impacted and is faced with a crisis of strategy.The good news, contrary to widespread fears, is that these elections were more polarized around social issues than around migration and security issues. It was a real moment of politicization, of popular education, but also of polemics among movements and supporters of the left.

Oppose Macron in the street, right away!

French political reality means that, in practice, the tone of the relationship of forces is given by the results of the presidential election, especially its first round.Emmanuel Macron became president - without surprise, given the relentless media campaign to support him and given that his adversary was the National Front (FN). But he did it without assembling a massive vote based on conviction. He was elected thanks to a strong vote against Le Pen, to which was added a historically high number of blank and spoiled ballot papers and a very strong level of abstention. On the left and in the social and trade- union movement, the debate on what vote to call for was lively, reflecting the dilemma and the trap of the French presidential system, which saw a face-off between a supporter of untrammelled liberalism and the candidate of a fascist party.The National Front affirmed its national influence by winning the support of Gaullists of the traditionalist right who crossed the red line. It acquired a solid territorial implantation, particularly in Northern, Eastern and South-Eastern France. Fifteen years have passed since the 2002 presidential election, and Marine Le Pen doubled her father’s score at that election around a programme that defends “national preference” and designates foreigners as being responsible for the crisis; but throughout the campaign her programme stressed social questions, with an anti-system profile. Marine Le Pen did not win, but the progression of her movement is constant and reaches voters with very diverse profiles. Having said that, the defeat of Marine Le Pen produced disappointment among her supporters, since her score did not surpass the 40 per cent mark that unofficially represented the threshold of success. Internally, criticism and tensions have erupted and there has been no hesitation in denouncing mistakes, notably those of Florian Philippot, one of those closest to the party president, who now evokes his departure if the National Front changes its line on the question of the exit from the euro. The founder of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has questioned the strategy of the party, attributing its defeat to the influence of Philippot, which he considers to be too great. The knives will be out within the party. And within the Le Pen family. The divisions in the party are regrouped in two broad currents, two figures, and two regions. The trend embodied by Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot is anchored in the North and East of France. Its line is clearly social, statist, anti-liberal and sovereignist. It addresses the working class electorate of the FN.The other current is represented by Marine le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, formerly an MP for the Vaucluse department. She has announced her temporary withdrawal from political life for personal reasons, but very few people would say that there is not a serious political conflict behind her decision. Her discourse highlights national and cultural identity, conservative and fundamentalist Catholicism. This current defends a liberal conception of the economy, where the state should concentrate on its core powers (army, police, borders). Its electorate is less working-class than in the North and more strongly represented in the world of business and trade: artisans, small employers and those, numerous in this region, who are nostalgic for French Algeria.Emmanuel Macron is the product of the collapse of the vote in favour of the traditional right and left parties that have governed France for 45 years in an alternating or cohabiting way.The results of the first round illustrate well the political and democratic crisis in France, which has led to a new stage in the crisis of the Fifth Republic, with the electoral defeat of the two parties, the Republicans and the Socialist Party (PS), who had organized until then the bipolarization of political life and the qualification of two presidential candidates for the second round... It is a real explosion of the political landscape that is under way.The results of the primaries of the right and the PS were confirmed: the parties and the personnel who have dominated politics for decades were eliminated. The traditional clashes between the right and left government parties have been called into question: the same policies followed on both sides have tended to efface the divisions between the Republicans and the Socialists. The personalities of these parties were “kicked out” in the primaries of the right and then of the left. This was the case with Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the Republic from 2007 to 2012, of the Republicans, but also with Manuel Valls, Prime Minister of François Hollande from 2014 to 2016, in the Socialist Party. Francois Hollande did not even stand again, unlike all his predecessors who tried to win a second term, so great was his unpopularity.Emmanuel Macron has thus become the receptacle of all the defenders of liberalism of recent decades. His “En Marche” movement is a sort of “recycling” movement that will accelerate the decomposition of the Socialist Party and even the Republicans. Is this the final crisis of the Socialist Party that emerged from the congress of Épinay in 1971? The Socialist Party has entered a deep crisis. The candidacy of Benoît Hamon, who defeated Manuel Valls and symbolized the refusal of the policies of the five years of the Hollande presidency, was marginalized, with 6.4 per cent of the votes. Part of the PS tried to undermine his campaign by choosing to support Macron. By choosing not to rely on the dynamics of the primary, but to preserve the balance within the PS, Benoît Hamon found himself subjected to the double competition on his left and his right of the candidatures of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Macron. Now (but belatedly) he has left the PS, launching a new movement that seeks to be intermediate between En Marche and France Insoumise. This follows the departure of Valls from the PS: the crisis in the PS is deepening, without it being certain that in the short term a new social-democracy can emerge in a credible fashion.Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker coming from the financial world, has been built up and supported by all the major media groups and by business leaders such as Laurence Parisot, former president of the MEDEF (employers’ organization). Benefiting from powerful financial support and from political figures coming, in an unprecedented way, from all sides, he succeeded in forcing the social-liberal current of the Socialist Party to openly accept an ultra-liberal programme and to make the left/right divide in the party explode. By his trajectory (as a former minister of Hollande) and by the voters he attracts, he comes from the governmental left. But by the ideological coherence he develops - liberalism openly affirmed, alliance with François Bayrou, leader of the Modem (centre right), and sectors of the right, he breaks any kind of ties with the social movement; he has succeeded in drawing sectors of the left towards what constitutes a new right. The Macron phenomenon is the result of a degradation of the relationship of forces, which has crystallized evolutions that had been embryonic for several years (construction of liberal Europe, adaptation to the logic of the market, individualism, left-right alliance...).He gave the illusion of representing a break with the past (young, neither right-nor left, without a party), but he represents a continuity. He was part of the government of Hollande, he supported the labour law, enacted by the former PS government, which abolished many forms of legal protections in employer/employee relations and which provoked a long social confrontation. He even wants to reinforce it, with an offensive programmed at breaking down social rights by governing by ordinance (which makes it possible to eliminate almost any control by the Parliament). The calendar of counter-reforms has already been announced: in the autumn a new law to destroy the labour code and then in early 2018 a historic change in the pension system, moving to a “notional account”, without excluding a further rise in the official age of retirement. Macron is a virulent advocate of free trade, such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union and Canada... He is a liberal, anti-social European and his friend Junker, President of the European Commission, has just reminded him that “the French spend too much”. Macron is already planning budget cuts in public spending and will rely on the “balance sheet” of the former government to free himself from some of his promises, and once again accentuate austerity choices.The challenge is therefore to oppose him right away, in the streets, by a united front of all those who proclaim that they want to resist him.

France Insoumise: a formidable campaign dynamic!

For the third time since the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of the President of France, the “left” was absent from the second round. But the dynamics of the campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon represent undoubtedly a major event for the reconstruction of a real left. He pulled off a major exploit, with nearly 20 per cent of the votes cast, representing just over 7 million votes. By arriving fourth in the first round, he made a remarkable breakthrough. This success was rooted in the strength of the rejection of the politics of Hollande and Valls, in the social mobilizations, the labour law, the Nuit Debout movement, the ecological and democratic movements that have developed in recent years. The candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon polarized the majority of left-wing voters (as witnessed by the parallel weakening of voting intentions for Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party) and of many abstentionists. In particular, he achieved significant success in working-class neighbourhoods, among workers and youth. For the first time, a left-wing candidate opposing the PS’s governmental policy and its hegemony was seen as representing a credible prospect of gaining power and not as a means of pressure from the left on the PS. The campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon imposed him as the main candidate of the left against liberalism. This was possible through the programme, which, although not strictly anti-capitalist, is quite radical: refusal of austerity, democracy and a Sixth Republic, ecological transition, integral social security, equality of rights... A campaign resonating with the social struggles of recent years.The major, decisive point after so many years of disappointment, after the mobilizations against the labour law, was first of all a snarling and definitive break with the Socialist Party, foreseeing that anything concerning the PS would be swept away in the very centralized confrontation that characterized this presidential election. This led to a political break with the Left Front, the alliance formed in 2009 between Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Party and the French Communist Party (PCF), and with the Communist Party’s hesitations concerning the Socialist Party.The choice that was made was to build a movement from below, outside of parties: France Insoumise, with a way of functioning that was horizontal and at the same time very vertical. The main decisions were in the hands of a small group around the candidate. But this was combined with the undeniable “free” vitality at local level, in a massive way, and with the support (obtained by commitments on the internet) of nearly 500,000 people. The parties (or factions of parties) that committed to France Insoumise had a specific “political space” where they could put forward their proposals, without it being possible at this stage to draw a concrete balance sheet of that experience. But it is true that the promise to break with the “traditional parties” convinced many people to support the process. On these two questions of democratic functioning and the place of various currents of ideas, heirs to specific political histories, the debate will open in the aftermath of the legislative elections, when it is a question of perpetuating the movement. Then the thorny question of the relationship with social movements will also have to be discussed. We cannot say that FI is cut off from these movements, since the general programme and the material dealing with specific sectors are, in the end, often copied and pasted from what each of the social movements produced. But these movements are not taken into account as such and, to date, the mobilization of FI members remains purely electoral (there are few FI activists as such involved in supporting migrants, irrespective of questions of “line”, "or in feminist mobilizations). Is it just because of the elections or is there a more lasting problem to be resolved?Mélenchon also understood the highly productive use of new means of propaganda, with a real generational break among the organizers of his campaign. He was able to put forward and defend a radical, ecologist, Keynesian programme, democratic on the institutional level. The successful demonstration in Paris for a Sixth Republic showed that the dynamics of the campaign were in tune with the crisis of the political regime and its system of representativeness. Mélenchon has also particularly developed the theme of ecological transition, with the abandonment of nuclear and fossil energies, a strong axis in the development of arguments to build alternatives to this society.There were points that led to disagreements and polemics on the left: on the Syrian question, on geostrategic questions, and on the freedom of immigrants to settle here. The suppression of the singing of the Internationale, keeping only the Marseillaise at the end of meetings, and the abundant presence of red, white and blue flags at every initiative was questioned. Would this affirmed patriotism drive people from the working-class neighborhoods away? Some people went so far as to believe that this was a way of attracting the voters of the National Front...In the end, Mélenchon was very well received in working-class neighbourhoods. Because there the links with the PS had been cut. He sent signals that were perceived as deeply friendly, otherwise he would not have had 37 per cent of the Muslim vote. What we see as problematic “patriotic” or even imperial signs were not perceived as such. When he says to Le Pen “stop talking about religion” it is understood as “let us live in peace”. This made possible an increased mobilization of the popular layers for Mélenchon and assured him pole position against Benoît Hamon. This was very marked in Marseilles, where Jean-Luc Mélenchon (with 24.82 per cent) came in ahead of the FN (23.66 per cent).There were lively debates defending the idea of unity between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon before the first round. This rapprochement was initially associated with the hope of a single candidacy of the two candidates, sharing a left reformist optic and likely have a bigger impact. The many petitions in this sense expressed this hope in various forms. But the respective strategic projects of these two candidates, although close in many respects, were strictly contradictory with any renunciation of one of them in favour of the other. After the Socialist primaries, Hamon believed he could maintain at all costs the unity of a moribund PS. It made no sense for Jean-Luc Mélenchon to join with him. Reciprocally, joining France Insoumise meant for Hamon putting a cross on his strategy of the primary and the recomposition of the PS. Except that this strategy was condemned to finish in a dead-end, as shown by the current splintering of the PS, with Hamon leaving the party and launching a new movement, while historic figures such as Martine Aubry and Anne Hidalgo (mayor of Paris) are launching another one. Not to mention all those who have joined Macron...Jean-Luc Mélenchon attracted an electorate that was young (29 per cent among 18-24-year olds), unemployed (32 per cent), working in white-collar (24 per cent) and blue-collar (25 per cent) jobs. Although he marginally bit into the electorates of the FN (4 per cent) and the right (3 per cent), the main result of his campaign was to remobilize the left electorate, which had abstained in intermediate elections (regional, municipal).Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the campaign of France Insoumise made it possible for debates to focus on subjects other than Islam and immigration and succeeded in reducing the influence of the FN in certain neighbourhoods. By demonizing Mélenchon in the last week before the first round, the media consciously helped the FN. Their cynical calculation was probably that this would facilitate the election of Macron in the second round...

The legislative elections confirm the essential lessons

France’s majority electoral system, with two rounds, has a powerful multiplier effect. With 33 per cent of votes in the first round, Macron’s party secured an absolute majority, but less solid than the polls had announced. Especially, the level of abstention was massive, breaking records by a long way. So much so that this majority actually represents a small minority of the population. It will be endowed with exorbitant powers, and brutal anti-popular offensives will succeed one another. It is impossible to say whether it will be successful or if the weakness of its roots will make things difficult for it. The old right is clearly weakened, and furthermore it is profoundly divided as to its attitude towards the new majority. And this is nothing compared to the PS, which has been steamrollered and is also still divided between support to Macron, opposition and abstention. The general political crisis is thus largely confirmed. The FN has suffered a very serious setback compared to its presidential results. This is what usually happens to it, but this time it is much more marked. It is being confirmed that the internal damage will be serious and delicate to repair. Since the far right has suffered many setbacks in Europe recently, there may be a new phenomenon of serious difficulties.The forces that supported Mélenchon were divided, a combined effect of the Communist Party over-estimating its own influence and a rather closed attitude on the part of FI. Moreover, abstention had particularly negative effects on FI, essentially rooted in the younger vote, the vote of workers and employees, of working-class neighbourhoods, which were precisely the most abstentionist strata. But the overall score remains high, more than 11 per cent for FI and 2.7 per cent for the PCF. As a percentage, that is 5 per cent less than the presidential election, but twice as much as the Left Front in 2012. The PCF emerges very much weakened politically, even though it managed to retain a parliamentary group. For the first time in its history, the radical left, with 17 elected representatives, will have a parliamentary group that should be a solid base to face up to the tough battles ahead.

Uncertainties, likely confrontations, potentialities

In the end, and for the moment, Macron seems to have pulled off a double operation. His own election, obviously. But also the serious weakening of the PS and now the possibility of fracturing the right. Many sectors of the PS and the right who have not yet joined him are willing to do so. With his hands apparently free to launch the liberal offensive dreamed of by the employers and the European Commission, which has been more or less contested and slowed down up to now. But these political successes do not cancel out the image of a deeply fractured country that was revealed in the first round of the presidential election. And although the incontestable social fatigue after so many defeats can favour Macron’s policy, it is just as much possible that, by means of such and such a measure, this or that event, the country finds the road to a confrontation that may turn out to be brutal. This will take place under the threat of the far right, which is certainly affected by serious divisions, but which nevertheless obtained 34 per cent of the votes in the second round of the presidential election. Fortunately, an almost equivalent bloc appeared on the left, in the first round of the presidential election (with a very high level of electoral participation), which was lacking until then, and which will perhaps provide a basis for these possible confrontations to have a favourable outcome. Provided that the promises contained in this left-wing vote can really be concretized in the existence of a force that is new, democratic and linked to the social movement in its diversity. For the moment, only a convention of France Insoumise is planned for the autumn. What is needed is a “constituent process". The debate is open and we must get involved in it.

Mélenchon, "La France Insoumise", populism: questions about the 2016-2017 electoral cycle and its implications

By Pierre RoussettEurope Solidarie — This piece was written for the German monthly Sozialistische Zeitung (SOZ), and so its target audience are foreign readers not expected to know a great deal about the situation in France. It’s also my way of wading into the debate on the recent elections and the campaign waged by Jean-Luc Mélenchon on behalf of the La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) movement. The debate covers a range of important questions, especially around the notion of “populism”, and I hope it will continue. [1]Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential and legislative campaign this year was different from the previous ones. There was a huge change in the relationship to political parties in general and to his former Left Front allies in particular. It’s important to understand the reasons for this change, as well as the implications and the specific context in which it took place.First, let’s take a quick look at who Mélenchon is. He called on voters to “get rid of” traditional politicians, successfully skirting over the fact that he himself is a rather caricatural example of such figures. He was a member of the ‘Lambertists’, a current of Trotskyist background with a symbiotic relationship to the apparatuses of Social Democracy, the Freemasons and the Force Ouvrière trade-union confederation. In this capacity, he was sent into the Socialist Party (PS) in 1976 and built a career there. In 1983, he was elected as a municipal councillor and then to the departmental level. He became a professional politician and didn’t put down roots in any particular constituency; he moved up to the Senate, in a country where senators aren’t elected directly by universal suffrage but indirectly by other elected officials, and then was elected as a member of the European parliament on the PS party list. He was appointed to cabinet in the government of prime minister Lionel Jospin, who himself had come out of the Lambertists. Only now has he finally been elected directly to the parliament, but only after parachuting himself in to a constituency in Marseilles, the large Mediterranean port city. Lacking local roots, he was still able to lead the left-wing Gauche Socialiste current within the PS. This was a genuinely activist current that enabled him to leave the PS in 2008 and found the Left Party (PG).What are his political points of reference? As I said, he originally comes out of the Lambertist current, not exactly the most democratic strain of French Trotskyism. He didn’t burn his bridges with this part of his past but nonetheless fully immersed himself in the Socialist Party. In fact, one of his main points of reference, and perhaps the main one, is François Mitterrand, French president from 1981 to 1995, to whom he was close. He considers Mitterrand to be a political genius. Though somewhat of a loner, Mitterrand was able to take over the PS, turn the Communist Party (PCF) into a junior partner by forging an alliance with it (the Union of the Left), win the presidency and hold on for two seven-year terms (a record for longevity, though not for radicalism!).Mélenchon feels absolutely no connection at all to the revolutions of the 20th century. It’s almost as if they had never taken place. There’s before – the Paris Commune, Jean Jaurès; and there’s after – for example, Hugo Chavez. It’s a huge understatement to say that he feels no empathy whatsoever for my generation’s revolutionaries [2].He is part of a current of opinion that’s quite strong in France – one that is simultaneously left-wing on socio-economic questions (public services and so forth) and nationalist. I’ll come back to this later.

2012-2017: from presidential ambition to the benches of parliament

What has made Mélenchon tick since he left the PS in 2008? Well, Mélenchon has made Mélenchon tick, and it’s not a clever one-liner to say so but rather an important insight into what he believes. He identifies with figures who embody important political change (beginning with Chavez – but also Mitterrand in 1981 after 25 years of right-wing rule in France). It took me some time to get my head around the idea, since it seemed so odd and so foreign to me, but it was indeed Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ambition to become president in the 2012 and 2017 elections. If you haven’t understood that, you haven’t understood anything. The change in orientation from 2012 to 2017 was tied first and foremost to a sense of opportunity. He chooses the character he will play and the political tack that he pursues on the basis of a tactical assessment of the period rather than a strategic project. This is the point Podemos citizen-council member Jorge Lago makes in his description of how Mélenchon changed tactics in 2017 after realizing that he had misread the presidential contest (with Fillon winning the right-wing nomination, not Sarkozy; Hamon as the PS candidate, not Valls or Hollande; and Bayrou supporting Macron) [3].When Mélenchon speaks of a “citizen insurrection”, he means a “revolution through the ballot box”. His aim was to quickly secure the presidency – with the hopes of doing so either in one fell swoop in 2012 or by becoming the “third man” in those elections with a view to winning in 2017. In the event, he came fourth in 2012 – behind National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen. He ran as the candidate of the Left Front (FdG), an electoral alliance between the Left Party (PG), the PCF and the various groups and networks that came together in the Ensemble! grouping. With 11.2 percent of votes cast, he took the bulk of “radical Left” votes. This was a respectable result; but in his eyes it was altogether insufficient.Debates at the time ran along familiar lines, having especially to do with the question of electoral alliances with the PS, on which the PG (Mélenchon) and the PCF disagreed. The PCF has a number of elected officials whose re-election often depends on reaching agreement with the PS, whereas the PG had very few (and ironically those they did have had been elected while still members of the PS).In reaction to this initial setback, Mélenchon opted to break free any constraints placed on him by the established parties – free from his allies in the Left Front, but also free from his own party, the PG [4]. He made a “Bonapartist” turn by declaring his candidacy for the presidential election without consulting or negotiating beforehand and by creating his own movement vehicle for the elections, La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) (LFI). He has aggressively pursued this tack and it’s no longer a matter of rallying forces together (behind him) but rather of replacing forces much further afield.Mélenchon always builds in opposition to something or someone, carefully selecting his target. For many years it was the Front National (FN). He took on Marine Le Pen one-on-one in the 2012 presidential elections and again in the northern constituency of Hénin-Beaumont in the subsequent legislative elections. He lost each time. In 2016-2017 he switched targets. “Kick them all out” became the new rallying cry. In the 2017 legislative elections, he ran in Marseilles – not in a constituency where the FN is strong but rather in one where he had done very well in the first round of the presidential elections and where the outgoing MP (from the PS), Patrick Mennucci, no longer had any hope of being re-elected – going down to defeat along with most PS MPs.The economic program has not changed qualitatively. It’s essentially a radical Keynesian approach, absent any kind of anti-capitalism, with a far greater emphasis on ecological questions than in the past. Over the months, though, language, symbols and communication techniques did indeed change. Mélenchon has taken a close look at what has worked in other countries, such as Obama’s use of social media and the Sanders campaign in the USA, or the history of Podemos in Spain. He 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). He likes PR stunts, such as using holograms to address two rallies simultaneously – an expensive trick that has already been used abroad (contrary to what he has suggested), and especially by Indian prime minister Modi. He works very closely with PR consultants. He is a professional politician, more than at any time in the past.Facing a threat on the Left from dissident PS candidate Benoit Hamon, he intensified his campaign’s populist profile. Jorge Lago approvingly highlights this turn and only regrets that it came rather late, and for reasons of tactical expediency rather than strategic commitment:“[Mélenchon’s] campaign has been superbly crafted. For example, the campaign video depicting how France will look in 2018, one year after his election, is really smart because he speaks the language of government and state. […] The French understand and identify with this kind of language. When I lived in France, the fact that this language of government and state was so widespread among people is one of the things that struck me most. In short, the idea of obliterating the language of the traditional Left and radical-Left shibboleths, and of banishing red flags and certain references from campaign rallies, was executed really well in my view, albeit perhaps a little late in the day.”Speaking the language of government and state, obliterating the traditional language and shibboleths of the radical Left, banishing red flags, Mélenchon has systematically and deliberately built LFI by breaking with the historic references and symbols of a class identity (and not only of the so-called “traditional Left”). Though promoting the creation of a Sixth Republic, he has fully immersed himself in the Fifth Republic tradition by which the presidential election creates a personal relationship between a man (rarely a woman) and the French people. He has catered to the rejection of political parties, just as Emmanuel Macron has. From this angle, a candidate’s profile, his media brand and what it embodies are more important than the content of the campaign program. Before getting to that, though, a few more words on the elections.Bouncing back from his defeat in the presidential election, and emboldened by his 19.6 percent score in the first round, Mélenchon called on voters to elect an LFI majority in the legislative elections – which would have made him prime minister, setting the stage for a conflictual cohabitation with the Macron presidency. In the event, LFI’s first-round legislative score had a sobering effect even if Mélenchon was happy with his own win in Marseilles.In the end, having run for the presidency, Mélenchon had to be content with his own election to the lower house and with that of enough fellow LFI candidates to form a parliamentary caucus – LFI has 17 MPs in total and 15 are required to form a caucus. This was actually a better result than what the polls forecast. In fact, all opposition parties gained from a relative demobilization of the Macron electorate in the second round of the lower-house elections. The PCF, for example, won in 11 constituencies and the FN in eight – depriving Mélenchon of the satisfaction of indirect revenge over FN leader Marine Le Pen.The PCF has formed its own parliamentary caucus, separate from LFI, thanks to the addition of five overseas MPs, who enable it to hit the 15-member cut-off.The new LFI caucus has positioned itself clearly on the left. Like the PCF, it has made defending the labour code its main focus. It’s too early to know how Mélenchon will remould himself or what he will do with la France Insoumise(whose remit, in its present form, was time-limited to the election campaign). Still, we can and should look at the recurring features of Mélenchon’s orientation and at the implications of the “populist moment” of 2017.

Populist symbolism

Mélenchon often demonstrates a keen sense of political timing. This was the case, for example, when he broke with the Socialist Party in 2008 in order to create the Left Party (PG) and then the Left Front (FG) with the PCF. That same year, we had launched the idea of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) and received a very favourable response – a fact which probably hadn’t escaped Mélenchon’s notice at the time. The NPA could only be built as the outcome of a lengthy and complicated process; whereas the PG was built overnight on the basis of forces already organized within the PS.The NPA process was initiated at a time when the Left Party (PG) and Left Front (FG) didn’t yet exist. But the NPA’s actual foundation took place after their creation and when they were very much on the offensive. As a result, the entire dynamic surrounding the launch of the NPA was thrown off kilter.When the Left Front began to run out of steam (created for purely electoral purposes, it ultimately became an empty shell), Mélenchon tried to break free from the arrangement in a number of ways, in particular by launching the Movement for the Sixth Republic (M6R). At the time, I found this initiative to be completely off the radar, since working-class concerns were primarily socio-economic in nature. Though the M6R itself was stillborn, the idea of the Sixth Republic did get some traction, with the crisis of the Fifth Republic’s institutions and the related system of parties going into full-blown crisis in 2017.Mélenchon is always on the lookout for novelty, and this is certainly one of his qualities. He’s also an excellent stage performer, a talent he uses and even abuses. In a presidential system like France’s, this is an asset. The PCF was unable to find a candidate that could rival him in this respect, and this allowed Mélenchon to dominate – and subsequently abandon – the Left Front.Here we come up against the question of an individual embodying a political future; with a project closely tied up with their own personal fate. I submit that this is the common ground between Mélenchon and the protagonists and theoreticians of Left populism: especially Chantal Mouffe and Ernest Laclau; and Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón.

On the Verso Books website, Chantal Mouffe herself supports Mélenchon as a “radical reformist against a mounting oligarchy” [5]. She makes a careful distinction between the Latin American context (societies with powerful, entrenched oligarchies) and Europe (where the Left-Right divide remains key). But in Europe, too, she argues, it’s a matter of bringing an end to the domination of an oligarchic system, by way of a democratic reconstruction.

One of Mélenchon’s spokespersons and a member of his inner circle, Raquelle Garrido, is less finicky in an interview with Jacobin [6]. The watchwords of the 2017 campaign were humanism, populism, patriotism and Constitution. LFI is a “a grassroots citizen movement, our ideology is humanist populism. In many ways we have adopted the populist strategy of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. [Populism] “is a program. It is a demarcation strategy between a ‘them’ [the oligarchy] and an ‘us’ [the people].[…] our movement […] is intended to build something beyond parties. It has constructed itself by design — really deliberately — as something different from the cartel of parties we had in 2012.” The situation is “ripe” for “what we’re saying — that we need a peaceful solution” to the numerous tensions that run through French society. In 2012, Mélenchon may have appeared “too radical, too subversive”. He now “seems wise”.It continues to be said of Mélenchon that he is an eternal “Jaurésien” (after the early 20th century French socialist leader Jean Jaurès), maintaining the reference to class but squarely within the reference to the Republic. The election campaign nonetheless saw a deliberate blotting out of the symbols of class-struggle politics. As the weeks went on, red flags vanished, giving way to a sea of French tricolor flags; and the Internationale made way for the French national anthem, The Marseillaise. The word “humanist”, unqualified, was seen as self-sufficient. Going the way of the hammer and sickle, even the raised fist has been upstaged by the Greek letter Phi (φ).Phi has become the movement’s logo, used everywhere including on ballot papers. There’s some wordplay here (Phi sounds like LFI’s usual acronym “FI”, just as Emmanuel Macron’s initials, EM, are the same as those of the En Marche!vehicle created to support his presidential run), but much more. Phi evokes philosophy, harmony and love and is unburdened by a political past. A symbol of neither Right nor Left. When it comes to harmony, Mélenchon often disrupts things with his deliberately arrogant and contemptuous remarks, but Phi remains a neutral marker all the same.Labour issues were at the heart of the Mélenchon campaign (against stripping workers of labour-code protection; on paycheque and taxation questions; and more), but not social classes as such. The idea of the “99 percent” is about the people against the oligarchs. On repeated occasions, Mélenchon organized the biggest rallies of the campaign season. For the tens of thousands of people in attendance, class identity had been rendered invisible. This will have consequences, since France is among those Western European countries where class identity has been effectively pushed from centre stage to the fragmented margins – much more so, I would argue, than in Belgium or Britain, for example. A win for the neoliberal ideological offensive. In fact, although both come out of a left social-democratic tradition, in this respect Mélenchon is the antithesis of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.In Left politics, is populism a temporary tactic? For one of the founders of Podemos, Juan Carlos Monedero, it should only be used temporarily, during what in Spanish he calls the movement’s “fase destituyente” (“deconstruction phase”) – and then surpassed in the “fase constituyente” (“constituent phase”) [7]. He specifically criticizes Íñigo Errejón’s approach:“Defenders of the ‘populist hypothesis’, and especially Íñigo Errejón, felt that it was enough to mobilize those sectors who could deliver victory and that we shouldn’t raise issues that might lose us votes. That is, that we should only raise abstract matters in order to secure the broadest support possible: country, [the oligarchical] caste and corruption. [The idea] is to empty signifiers, but in fact it’s the very possibility of change that ends up being gutted. When Laclau says that politics and economics are the same thing, he brushes aside the material conditions for class struggle. I think that’s a mistake.”It’s possible that Mélenchon will opt to resurrect a class-based approach in parliament and not leave it to the PCF alone. Still, and the question can just as well be directed to Monedero, is it really so easy to rebuild something that you have deftly dismantled in the first instance?

“Replacement” and La France Insoumise

“Replacement” has become a central part of Mélenchon’s message and political choices. There’s nothing to regret about the death of the PS, which long ago ceased to be a “workers party”. Nor should anyone want to breathe new life into it. If that were all this was about, then “replacement” would be fine and dandy.However, for Mélenchon the era of parties is finished. So long live the movements! He doesn’t merely take note of the decline of said parties, he actively contributes to their marginalization. This dovetails nicely with the current situation in France, and it’s precisely how Macron and his En Marche (now La République en Marche — LREM) movement have succeeded.In the present context, the consequences of this approach might be especially serious. With whom can a coalition of social and democratic resistance against Macron be organized when one’s ambition is to “replace” all of one’s possible party allies? After having carefully separated the field of electoral politics (a matter for politicians) from that of socio-economic action (a matter for trade unions), Mélenchon now appears to be portraying himself and his parliamentary caucus as the natural parliamentary expression of the struggles that the trade-union movement will undertake.There is an urgent need to unite all resistance forces at the risk of being summarily defeated by the offensive that Macron is preparing around a range of questions – from granting employers more workplace-level powers; to enshrining in ordinary law the temporary measures of the present state of emergency in the country.The problem is that replacement is the antithesis of unity.Question: what’s going to happen to La France Insoumise? What does it mean to say that the era of (traditional) parties is over?Mélenchon toys with the notion that it’s possible to circumvent parties, totally marginalizing and shattering them [8] But he hasn’t explained what will replace them. LFI wasn’t conceived to be a lasting formation but as a temporary instrument for the 2017 elections. It was created in February 2016. No one could join, it was impossible to pay dues and the only thing you could do was make financial contributions for the upcoming elections. Dues imply membership and the rights and responsibilities that go with it. Signing up to the LFI process entailed neither rights nor responsibilities. Nothing is expected of you and you have no formal power.There were perhaps up to 500,000 Internet clicks of people supporting LFI. That’s a lot. Internet users submitted their ideas online. A “synthesis”, or program, l’Avenir en commun [9] (“Our common future”) was posted for approval and about 97 percent of respondents were in favour. Restrictive rules were handed down: LFI support groups were not to have more than 15 members, and shouldn’t straddle constituencies or coordinate their work between each other within larger geographic zones. There should be no local LFI conventions or general assemblies. These highly unusual rules (which haven’t always been abided by locally) obviously strengthen the authority of top leadership, while not necessarily doing away with the need for electoral horse-trading among different competing internal party-type groupings. Overall, horizontal functioning was at once very informal and circumscribed, with tight vertical control by the core leadership.Activist teams were established, often at the initiative of the top leadership, and took on a number of tasks – in particular doing an excellent job of getting out the LFI message on social media. While there have been analogies to the Spanish party Podemos, it’s not quite so simple. We didn’t have a mass movement on the same scale in France and there was no space within LFI for a founding organization like the Spanish far-Left group Anticapitalistas.The core leadership group was drawn from the Left Party (PG). There’s an all-in-the-family feel to it, with people who have a long history together. Some of them are now LFI members of parliament, some of whom had been LCR/NPA members before getting involved in the Ensemble! group.Close identification to the leader has given rise to highly sectarian forms of behaviour from the Mélenchon fan club, which swarms together against any criticism online, to the point where their targets’ online accounts have occasionally been blocked. Mélenchon himself is no fan of criticism. I really want to stress this point because it’s part of a deplorable trend on the radical Left, where debates on substantive issues are mediocre at best and demonization has become commonplace. Disagreement is seen as illegitimate as soon as it touches upon a “sensitive” question.So that’s how things have gone so far, but where are we headed? Mélenchon and the tight-knit group around him have to spell out the kind of lasting movement they hope to build. And they have to explain how the pluralism of society will be expressed if, as they have argued, it is not meant to do so via the plurality of parties.It’s not hard to see why parties have been discredited. It’s not because of Macron or Mélenchon. The PS in particular self-destructed under the recently concluded Hollande presidency. And nor should the PCF and far-Left blame their own failures on anyone else. The same goes for the parties of the Right. But what must we (re)build now?LFI’s social roots are very shallow. It would be quite ironic were it to make the same hegemonic claims as the PCF used to during its Stalinist phase. Long-time PCF member and faithful Mélenchon supporter Roger Martelli raises this very question in decidedly measured terms [10]:“Like the PCF in its heyday, La France Insoumise could very well choose to argue that there is no space outside its ranks for politics that are both realistic and revolutionary. Yet at a time of crisis and reconfiguration, where broad regrouping and collective invention are the order of the day, it is advisable to steer clear of any approach that in one way or another appears to call on other forces to pledge allegiance.”

The people and patriotism

Mélenchon sings the praises of France and always has. He sings the praises of France as global power, spanning all the world’s seas and oceans. He wants France to quit NATO – but “à la Charles de Gaulle”, in order better to defend its interests and prestige around the world.This has nothing to do with the actual relationship of forces in today’s world, but it was very much part of LFI’s campaign. Running for the presidency, Mélenchon enjoyed speaking as the country’s (future) commander in chief of the French military, whose capacities he wants to strengthen (and whose nuclear weapons he wants to keep).

The “people” is a national-people, the foundation for patriotism. In an imperialist country, patriotism is not a sure bet for the Left! For Mélenchon, though, France is not imperialist. LFI doesn’t fight against French imperialism because such a fight is unwarranted. Its view of foreign policy is not based on an internationalist outlook but a geostrategic one [11]. So its view of the situation in the Middle East is based on an assessment of the relationship between global powers – hence the calls to cooperate with Russia and too bad if this means negotiating terms with Assad.

The same approach of rival global powers can be applied to Europe – so the target becomes Angela Merkel’s Germany (with borderline Germanophobic rhetoric).Mélenchon also sees the unity of the Republic – France’s “one and indivisible” character – as sacrosanct. He inveighs against the country’s Regional Languages Charter; he attacked Hollande when he called for strengthening Corsica’s regional powers; and on and on it goes. All this prompted a retort from Philippe Pierre-Charles of the Martinique GRS [12]:It has to be said, though, that Mélenchon’s stance around these matters has not elicited much response within the French “radical” Left. It’s a worrying and indeed demoralizing symptom.

Contradictory impact

It’s quite natural, especially from abroad, to see LFI’s success solely as a hopeful sign of radical-Left recovery and renewal. And it is indeed the case that to a large extent people voted for LFI for left-wing reasons. The flipside, though, is that this success was also built upon a policy of shattering the Left’s identities, symbols and historical reference points (in the true meaning of the word “Left”).This apparent paradox can’t be grasped within the usual analytical framework. But we must come to terms with what is taking place. The danger is that the net outcome will be more negative than positive – with the destructive ramifications on people’s consciousness weighing more heavily in the balance than the underpinnings of renewal and reconstruction. LFI requires a specific analytical framework that takes in its contradictory features.LFI is clearly a multi-faceted space. A number of radical-Left activists have gotten involved based on the compelling argument that we should be in those spaces where things are happening. Unfortunately, this involvement took place without in-depth debate (with a few exceptions, such as Samy Johsua). In any event, a chapter is now closed. The long 2016-2017 election cycle is over. The important choices now are the ones that will be made over the coming days and weeks. There can be no getting around a substantive debate on the very notion of “Left populism”, its ambiguities and the serious dangers that they entail. As Samy Johsua and Roger Martelli have pointed out, “populaire” (“working-class”) and “populist” are not the same thing [13]:“Of course, there’s nothing disgraceful about finding populism appealing; there are solid arguments in its favour. But these same arguments can also lead us into a dead-end. Populism claims to be combative but it could well be paving the way now for future defeats. We aren’t about fighting with the far-Right for control of the nation; rather, we seek to extend the realm of popular sovereignty toward all political spaces without distinction. We aren’t about wresting collective identity, be it national or of any other sort, away from the far-Right; rather, we advocate the free embrace of identities and belonging – with a massive increase in equality, the only lasting basis for common endeavour. We aren’t about taking populism back from the far-Right; rather, we undermine their influence by building an emancipatory force rooted in the working classes. ‘Populaire’ (‘working-class’) is not the same as ‘populist’. Our efforts must focus on building this force for working-class dignity.”

Once again on the political situation

Overall, the results of the presidential election are very worrying. In the first round, the top three candidates were of the Right and far-Right. Emmanuel Macron is man of the Right in every respect – economic, of course, but also “philosophical” (his conception of the role of the individual in society); his profile differs only in that he hails from a modern Right on societal questions, unlike the very conservative Catholic third-place finisher François Fillon. As for the second-place finisher Marine Le Pen, she is the figurehead of the far-Right Front National (currently facing internal challenges following the calamitous end to her second-round campaign and the broad range of voters that coalesced against her).The presidential race also shed light on the fragile state of bourgeois “governance” in the country, given the important role played by unexpected “bumps in the road”. After the right-wing primary, Fillon was seen as a shoe-in to win the presidential election. But he then got embroiled in a series of what can only be described as unprecedented financial scandals. The striking thing about it all, though, was how his party was unable to find a replacement, placing the hangman’s noose around its own neck. Had it been otherwise, Macron wouldn’t have won in 2017.PS party rebel Benoît Hamon had a stroke of luck, securing his party’s nomination in the Socialist primary. At one point, he was ahead of Mélenchon in the polls. But he was unable or unwilling to break with the PS and the apparatus of the moribund party clipped his wings. Had this not occurred, it’s not certain that Mélenchon’s campaign would have taken off in time to reach his final 19.6 percent result.Mélenchon’s campaign crossed over into shooting distance of the presidency during a short period of time and in a number of stages – first, the shift of polling numbers from disgruntled Hamon supporters; then a TV debate where he got the better of the four other candidates; and finally, the growing sense that he could make it into the second round.Macron and Mélenchon were adept at seizing the opportunity that the paralysis of the two government parties opened up for them. As a result, the political-institutional stage in France is now dominated by two movements that are “works in progress” – on a large scale on the Right (Macron and LREM) and on a small scale on the Left (Mélenchon and LFI). There has been an unprecedented 72 percent turnover among members of parliament. We are in uncharted waters.That being said, I think that the outcome of the legislative elections, coming on the heels of the presidential contest, have revealed the limits of the changes that have taken place. The president got his majority, but it wasn’t a landslide. In the first round, opposition tickets experienced the usual decline relative to their presidential candidate’s scores. They rebounded somewhat in the second round thanks to the estrangement of many Macron voters, no doubt troubled by new scandals involving newly appointed ministers (Richard Ferrand and François Bayrou among others). And through it all, abstention broke all previous records – hitting 57 percent in the second round of the legislative elections!Mélenchon probably paid a price for refusing to make a clear call to come out against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election (as part of an attempt to hold together the wide range of voters that supported him in the first round); and for appearing excessively ambitious at each stage. Macron paid a price for scandals involving ministers in his first cabinet. But ultimately there was neither left-wing insurrection at the ballot box nor right-wing landslide. Even at a time of great party-political and institutional upheaval, political disaffection remains the dominant feature [14]. The democratic crisis is deepening.

Emmanuel Macron knows full well that he has not won a landslide. He also knows that his opponents have been seriously weakened, for the time being. So he does indeed have room for manoeuvre – and will do so for the worse. We are in a defensive position. We will probably need time to build a broad coalition of social and democratic resistance (instances of resistance already exist, but they are still marginal). No such coalition will be built without unity and absent renewal of political practice on the radical Left and in social movements.

Translation from French: Nathan RaoFootnotes[1] Note: written just after the recent round of elections, this article is now clearly out of date. In any case, its aim was not to provide a comprehensive overview. La France Insoumise is holding a convention in October; that should be the occasion for a more open discussion on the questions raised by this novel experience in French politics.[2] See ESSF “Nous n’acceptons pas de voir notre passé commun insulté par Jean-Luc Mélenchon:”.[3] See ESSF “L’hypothèse populiste – Du Front de gauche à la France insoumise: quelles influences de Podemos?”.[4] On the 2015 crisis in the Left Party, see ESSF “What Happened to the French Left? – Mélenchon, the rise and crisis of the Parti de Gauche”.[5] See ESSF “French presidential candidate – Mélenchon: A Radical Reformist Against Mounting Oligarchy”.[6] See ESSF “France Rebels – Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s campaign, humanist populism, patriotism, Constitution”.[7] See Le Vent Se Lève “« Podemos ne voulait pas réinventer la gauche mais reconstruire un espace d’émancipation » – Entretien avec Juan Carlos Monedero ”.[8] See the formulations he uses in the piece “Le peuple et le ‘mouvement’ ” and Samy Johsua’s comments, ESSF “ La France insoumise – «L’ère du peuple» et «l’adieu au prolétariat»?:”.[9] See here.[10] See ESSF “France insoumise, PCF – Réflexions stratégiques sur l’après législatives:”.[11] See Pierre Rousset, ESSF “Jean-Luc Mélenchon, l’habit présidentiel, l’arme nucléaire et la gauche française:”.[12] See ESSF “Mélenchon, le PCF et les colonies”], which concludes:“The moral of the story is that progressives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean cannot evade a serious and fraternal debate on how to bring about the total eradication of colonialism.” [[See ESSF “La question oubliée : la République, la gauche et les colonies:”.[13] See ESSF “Considérations sur le populisme de gauche – “Un pôle populaire et non populiste””.[14] See ESSF“Abstention – Jean-Luc Mélenchon : la légitimité à géométrie variable:”