Jean-Luc Mélenchon Welcomes the Animosity

Jean-Luc Mélenchon Welcomes the Animosity

Jean-Luc Mélenchon Welcomes the Animosity

The “divisive” MP says he’s the best candidate to prevent France’s rightward lurch.


Paris—As an early evening drizzle enveloped the Stalingrad neighborhood of northeastern Paris, 22-year-old Léo Bewa and a dozen other activists gathered outside a public housing complex to knock on doors. They planned to register residents to vote, but the main reason for their organizing was to talk about the presidential campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-populist from the party La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed, making his third consecutive bid for the Élysée Palace.

“We want to find the people who usually don’t turn out to vote,” said Bewa, a graduate student in history clutching flyers with key items from Mélenchon’s progressive platform: a hike in the minimum wage, a decrease in the retirement age, and a reimplementation of the wealth tax repealed by President Emmanuel Macron. “We need people to get interested in politics again.”

When residents of diverse, working-class neighborhoods show up at the polls, it tends to benefit candidates like Mélenchon. In the first round of the last presidential election in 2017, he received more votes than any other candidate in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a district shaped by a large share of public housing and a hefty presence of low-income residents. Elected to the National Assembly just a weeks later, Mélenchon represents a similarly diverse district of Marseille.

But the door-knocking session highlights the immensity of the challenge ahead. While a few residents proclaim their sympathy for Méluche, as he’s sometimes dubbed in the French press, many say they’re not interested in April’s election, which is still about six months away. Some don’t want to register to vote. Others aren’t French citizens and can’t vote anyway. When the two teams of activists meet up in the stairwell afterward, 36-year-old campaign volunteer Gilles shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s kind of the same story,” Gilles said. “They’re sick of politics and say the elections aren’t going to change anything.”

With France’s political debate lurching rightward, the climate outside of Paris isn’t looking very encouraging either. Buoyed by a relentless wave of media coverage that recalls the early days of Donald Trump’s rise, polemicist and TV personality Éric Zemmour has so far set the tone for the 2022 campaign, with topics like insecurity, immigration, Islam, and national identity dominating the airwaves.

Right now polls tend to show President Emmanuel Macron firmly in the lead. He’s followed by Zemmour and Marine Le Pen of the National Rally duking it out on the far-right, both of them tracked closely by one of the two leading hypothetical candidates from the mainstream right party Les Républicains, set to be nominated by early December. A divided left sits largely on the sidelines. Most polls show Mélenchon behind these four front-runners, just barely ahead of European parliamentarian Yannick Jadot of the Greens and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo of the Socialist Party.

But Mélenchon told me that he remains hopeful. During an hour-long conversation over Skype, he opened up about his campaign strategy and outlined what he views as his narrow but clear path to victory. Wearing a white-collar shirt under a navy jacket and sporting a headset, he spoke calmly and revealed a degree of self-awareness that doesn’t always come across in his fiery public persona.

He explained that all the political instability plays to his advantage. If the 2017 race blew apart the country’s two traditional parties—knocking out the center-left and center-right to the benefit of Macron and Le Pen—2022 is shaping to be even more unpredictable, “a roller coaster like never before,” as he put it.

“We’re in a phase of absolute turbulence in which it’s fair to say the dust hasn’t cleared,” Mélenchon said, as an imposing wall of books covered the background of his screen.

The founder of La France Insoumise argued that the fragmentation can play to his advantage. If Zemmour and Le Pen split the far-right vote, he said, it could lower the threshold required for second-round qualification to around “16, 17 percent,” similar to the 2002 election.

“In these conditions, I’ve said from the beginning, there’s an opening so long as we stick with the idea of a break with the system, this break that the center-left is incapable of, whether it’s ecologist or social democratic,” he explained, referencing his Green and Socialist rivals. “I’m holding this line, because I don’t need to prove it—I’ve held it the last two elections—and it’s why my friends believed I should run a third time, because the content of my discourse and the content of my platform is recognized as being one of radicality.”

The platform is at heart of Mélenchon’s strategy. Instead of downplaying its more transformative planks, he wants to stress the fact that it would usher in a radical overhaul of France’s political and socioeconomic status quo. At the top of the list is an end to the “presidential monarchy” of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, and the creation of a constituent assembly charged with forging a Sixth Republic based in a fully parliamentary system. (A legacy of Charles de Gaulle’s return to power at the height of the Algerian War, France’s president has the authority to dissolve the National Assembly and propose bills that bypass standard legislative debate.) Other high points include massive state intervention in the economy to redistribute wealth and invest in green energy and an exit from NATO

Mélenchon is sometimes likened to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. On one level, it’s an apt comparison. At a moment of historic weakness for the left on both sides of the Atlantic—with organized labor on the defensive—each of their campaigns served as vehicles for a rejuvenated form of social democratic politics. Despite their relatively advanced age (now 70 years old, Mélenchon is slightly older than Corbyn but younger than Sanders), the trio generated an immense amount of enthusiasm from young voters.

But their styles differ a great deal. Unlike Sanders and Corbyn, who tended to stick to the same stump speech, Mélenchon has a knack for improvisation on the campaign trail and appears at ease when he veers into unchartered territory. Even his fiercest critics acknowledge he’s an excellent orator: Mélenchon has a booming voice, an excellent sense of pace, a depth of historical and literary references at his disposal, and a masterful command of language—including an ability to deliver pithy one-liners against his foes.

They also have very different relationships to power. The Anglo-Americans were longtime outsiders before taking the spotlight: a backbencher and a fringe member of Congress transformed into superstars overnight. In the countries that gave the world Reagan and Thatcher, here were a pair of elder statesmen, finding new audiences for long-ignored left-wing messages.

Mélenchon, on the other hand, spent decades firmly within France’s political mainstream, fighting grueling internal battles before finally giving up and embracing a new approach on the outside.

A high school French teacher who got his start in activism as a member of a small Trotskyist organization, Mélenchon joined the Socialist Party in 1976 at age 25. Five years later, he watched as François Mitterrand became the first-ever left-wing president of the Fifth Republic. With a Socialist at the helm of the nation, Mélenchon was elected to the Senate in 1986, holding the post for 14 years—then again from 2004 to 2010.

It’s from this position that he watched the slow-motion collapse of European social democracy. In our interview, he likened its decomposition to the end of the Soviet Union. “It wasn’t just the wall that fell, but an entire balance of forces between capital and labor incarnated by social democracy that collapsed,” Mélenchon said. “When I say collapse, you have to recognize the violence of the shock, especially for someone like me who knew the situation before. To see every left-wing political party disappear in Italy is as staggering of an event as the fall of the USSR.”

Still, for years, Mélenchon decided to remain in the Socialist Party, preferring to try to reform the party from within rather than risk isolation on the outside. From 2000 to 2002, he even served as a minister for professional education under the cabinet of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

“If the goal is taking power, the line Mélenchon adhered to for a long time was that we need a central left-wing party,” said Christian Paul, a former Socialist MP from 1997 to 2017 who served in the same Jospin cabinet as Mélenchon. “He followed this strategy of trying to change the political orientations of the Socialist Party, and at a certain point, he decided he couldn’t any longer, so he left.”

One of the final straws was the referendum over a new EU constitution, put to a vote before the French public in 2005. Breaking with the Socialists, Mélenchon joined the far-left, labor unions, and environmental NGOs in campaigning for a “no” vote, criticizing the treaty’s enshrining of rules to deregulate public services and stymie state spending. (The “no” vote won, but much of the constitution was adopted anyway under the Lisbon Treaty, which French legislators ratified three years later.)

In 2008, Mélenchon launched his own party, the Left Party. From this post, he mounted a presidential campaign in 2012, uniting various groups to the left of the Socialists under the banner of the Left Front and taking an impressive 11 percent of the vote.

After the disaster of Socialist François Hollande’s presidency, Mélenchon ran again in 2017—but opted for a different strategy. Heading a new movement, La France Insoumise, Mélenchon dropped the references to the “left,” leaned into the universalism of the French Republic, and made a push to win over working-class voters disaffected from politics. It saw him come just 600,000 votes from making the runoff round.

Crafted as a way of advancing a transformative agenda at a time when much of the European left has shed its anti-capitalist ambitions along with its ties to low-income voters, the populist approach still influences La France Insoumise today. It’s why when Mélenchon talks strategy, he sounds very different from lefties in UK Labour or the Democratic Socialists of America.

“The processing of affects is an extremely important question in conceptions of left populism,” Mélenchon told me. “We believe there’s a certain equivalence between ideas and affects and that certain ideas are affects and certain affects are ideas. Like energy and matter, there is a correspondence between the two.”

It’s in these terms that Mélenchon explained his recent decision to debate Zemmour on prime-time TV, a move criticized by many on the left as further mainstreaming the latter’s hate speech. For Mélenchon, it wasn’t just about confronting Zemmour’s ethno-nationalism with his universalist conception of a French nation grounded in a process of “creolization.” It was also about showing viewers that at least someone’s sticking up for them.

“Working-class people have their heads down with the idea that the elections don’t matter and that in France, you have the right to insult Muslims and people with immigrant backgrounds from the morning to the evening and that nobody does anything against this,” he said. “The mobilization of affects, of the dignity of people who’ve been racialized and insulted was an extremely important phenomenon to trigger. And it’s what happened.… the debate electrified the scene and provoked a surge in political affects.”

It’s no secret that Mélenchon is unpopular. His proposals to hike wages and redistribute wealth have triggered a backlash from executives and small-business owners, while his criticism of police violence and defense of racial and religious minorities have prompted criticism from France’s social conservatives. But the fact is that he’s not exactly beloved by everyone on the left either.

Some of that’s due to political difference: Not everyone agrees over nuclear power, the state’s role in the economy, or how France should position itself vis-à-vis the European Union. At the same time, Mélenchon’s critiques of anti-Muslim discrimination and police brutality have also managed to anger those who are otherwise ideologically similar. He famously did not participate in a protest led by police unions outside the National Assembly this May that called on judges to hand out lengthier prison sentences. A broad spectrum of France’s political class turned out—not just Le Pen, Zemmour, and Macron’s interior minister, but also the current presidential candidates of the Greens, Socialists, and Communists.

Others bristle at Mélenchon’s populist style, believing he goes too far when tapping into frustrations at the ruling establishment. Earlier this year, for instance, he drew fire for suggesting that there would be a terrorist attack just before the presidential election and that it would be used to demonize Muslims. Meanwhile, despite encouraging vaccinations against Covid-19, Mélenchon has criticized vaccine mandates and the government’s health pass, which limits access to restaurants and trains for the unvaccinated, as undue restrictions on civil liberties—and even endorsed the protest movement against them.

Others, still, have bemoaned the lack of internal democracy within La France Insoumise, an organization that features no elected leadership and few mechanisms for rank-and-file members to challenge decisions taken by the movement’s inner circle. This was the main grievance of Charlotte Girard, a former LFI leader who resigned in June 2019 and issued a stinging public rebuke of the party’s top-heavy structure.

Georges Kuzmanovic, a former LFI foreign policy adviser who left in November 2018 and went on to form his own party, Sovereign Republic, and is now running for president himself, said one of Mélenchon’s most embarrassing episodes reflected that lack of internal democracy. In November 2018, police raided the party’s headquarters in Paris as part of investigations into presidential campaign spending and the use of funds reserved for European parliamentary assistants. (Both probes are ongoing.)

Decrying the operation as a politically inspired attack, Mélenchon summoned his supporters to the scene and arrived in middle of the raid, where he was filmed angrily confronting an officer of the court. “I am the Republic!” he yells in one heavily circulated clip, an abstract reference to his status as a legislator that was overshadowed by his red-hot wrath.

Kuzmanovic said that things should never have even gotten to that point. “He scared everybody so much—that’s the problem when you’re an autocrat and there’s no democracy—he stressed everybody out so much that nobody dared to say anything, even when he was about to do something stupid,” he told me at a café in Paris. “It’s totally linked to the lack of democracy.”

The former member of Left Party leadership said he already knew he was going to leave La France Insoumise at that point, but still felt uneasy watching the events unfold. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t do that’,” Kuzmanovic said, pointing to how uncomfortable some of his ex-comrades looked on the livestream. “You can criticize the raid, but you don’t scream at representatives of the law like that. It was stupid.”

The episode cost the party gravely, contributing to Mélenchon’s reputation as a hot-head and an extremist unfit to govern. The party had worked hard to refine his image as a radical but capable leader-in-waiting.

Mélenchon is also often lambasted for an unwillingness to build bridges with others and a supposed drive to build hegemony at all costs, a criticism shared to varying degrees by politicians from the Communists, Socialists, and Greens.

“I appreciate him, but I think that since 2017, he hasn’t shown an ability or will to bring people together, to play collectively and to embody the alternative that our country needs,” Green Party leader Julien Bayou wrote to me in a text message.

But Mélenchon rejects that argument. He said the other left-wing parties haven’t shown good-faith interest in building alliances and that he doesn’t need their support to win. “For once, I’m going to quote François Hollande, which is an extraordinary event, because in general, he is extremely insipid and has nothing interesting to say,” he told me smiling. “But he said at least one thing that’s correct, which is, ‘It’s not unity that creates strength; it’s strength that creates unity.’”

Fundamentally, Mélenchon believes that if he sticks to his platform, he’ll break through at some point. “I’m making the bet that as soon as my candidacy hits a certain level, it’s going to trigger a dynamic of uniting, because people will say, ‘We can win.’ And as soon as they say, ‘We can win,’ millions of people who don’t turn out will leave their apartments to vote the day of the vote.”

These are all arguments for making it out of the first round of the presidential election—but victory in the runoff round will require uniting a much larger coalition. And the polls suggest Mélenchon has an image problem. According to one late September study from Odoxa, a staggering 54 percent of respondents said they had a negative view of the LFI leader—a level that puts him in the same territory as Zemmour (59 percent) and Le Pen (52 percent).

When asked about how to overcome this, Mélenchon said he welcomes the hostility. He began nodding his head even before I finished the question, as if he’s familiar with the criticism. “It’s a good thing,” he said. “You know, it’s like in sailing. People think the boat moves forward because of the wind in the sails. The reality is that the boat moves forward because of the resistance of the keel in the water, and it’s the combination of the push and the resistance that gives it speed.”

But at what point does the resistance become too much to bear?

Mathilde Panot, a 32-year-old MP and the vice-president of LFI’s group in Parliament, said that the animosity toward the party is unsurprising. “We have a program of rupture that’s so strong that one shouldn’t expect it’ll happen easily,” she told me in an interview inside the LFI offices at the National Assembly. “And it’s not happening easily.”

She conceded that Mélenchon’s image has suffered in recent years—she pinned it on the barrage of criticism from the far right and Macron supporters—but she insisted it’s not a problem to be seen as disruptive. “You know, the idea that he’s divisive is something that we’ve constructed,” she said. “It’s important to be divisive.”

It’s precisely that appetite for confrontation that Mélenchon believes makes him the best-equipped to fight France’s rightward shift, which he says is driven by elite political discourse and doesn’t reflect ordinary people’s concerns. “If it’s really just artificial. We’ll make it disappear through our ability to mobilize,” he told me. “I believe there’s a majority of French people against their country’s drift toward this lamentable thing. We’re here, and there are a lot of us.”

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