Writing from Marseille in France, Jay Sutherland argues Jean-Luc Melenchon represents a serious attempt to intervene in a declining French capitalism.
You wouldn’t have known the first round of the French Presidential election campaign was underway from coverage in the French media. Most here and abroad even now is focused on Ukraine, awash with avid reporting of Zelensky’s love-bombing of parliaments and music events worldwide. This relegation of democracy has gone with little comment.
One figure looking to change the dynamic is veteran left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Harnessing hologram technology fit for his fictional spacefaring viticulturist namesake, Jean-Luc has beamed a series of speeches across France, building on his France Insoumise party’s record of deploying high-tech strategies to fight apathy among the electorate.
Having achieved a laudable 19 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, Mélenchon has roused his young and diverse audience with the message “we can feel our destiny at our fingertips…we can push for the most incredible political change of direction imaginable’’. This is not all impotent bluster – despite a relative lack of mainstream coverage Mélenchon is consistently polling at around 16.5 percent and has by far the best chance of any left candidate of defeating the authoritarian neoliberal Macron and the far right Le Pen.
France’s electoral politics has in recent times been constrained by the claustrophobic interplay of the centre-right and far-right, which inspires few. The mainstream left Parti Socialiste has completely collapsed, with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo polling at a historically low 2%, while the Ecology-Green candidate Yannick Jadot languishes in sixth place. For his part, Mélenchon requires a late surge of around 5-6% to make the second round of voting, which sees the top two candidates go head-to-head. Eleventh hour heroics are something of a motif of Mélenchon’s campaigns, who has often described himself as a ‘political tortoise’ – slow but with the potential to beat the hares to the finishing line. This is why you will see many of his supporters brandishing tortoise emojis, alongside the red triangles which distinguish them from the far right.
Mélenchon’s manifesto commitments are transformative, including ending Macron’s neoliberal reforms, lowering the pension age, keeping education accessible for all, raising the minimum wage to €1,400 a month, leaving NATO and ending femicide. Most of all, he promises constitutional reform that would bring in a ‘Sixth Republic’, decentralising power from Paris and the President towards citizens assemblies. Power he argues has to be with the people, such that he would govern with the use of citizens’ referenda, one of the demands of the powerful gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement.
While such radicalism might be baulked at on the British left, Mélenchon’s polling makes him a serious candidate – indeed his whole strategy is based on the understanding that only a radical left can beat the far right. Rather than the familiar neutered strategy of diversifying the rich, Mélenchon aims to make them pay. His party’s priority is to renew working class pride in France, a breath of fresh air to someone who grew up on one of Scotland’s poorest council estates. On foreign policy he is similarly invigorating, positioning himself as an anti-globalist internationalist in arguing for a non-aligned France dissociated from NATO, a strategy which has won him a range of high profile international endorsements.
Mélenchon has the support of significant working class constituencies, yet is often scorned by an urban hipster cohort known in France as ‘Le Bobo’, an abbreviation of Bohemian Bourgeois. Such adherents of French woke culture are often seen in run down clothes reading the latest French de-colonialist writer and arguing that Mélenchon is a simple male chauvinist. This cohort largely backed Parti Socialiste in the last election and continue to laud the former justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who along with neoliberal reforms brought in equal marriage and would represent progress as France’s first black and female President. As is the case across the Western world, competition is reproduced between liberal equalities politics and socialist redistributive politics by a neoliberal governance paradigm which weds liberation to marketisation. Yet in France thus far the transformation to an individualising identity politics has not progressed as far as in the Anglophone world. It’s common still for young people to know about the class system and understand the value of trade unionism.
Of course, one of the deepest wounds in French society is that of Islamophobia which, refracted through the lens of laïcité or French state secularism, has been an ongoing source of controversy and division on the French left. While Mélenchon himself has generally been outspoken in condemning political Islamophobia and its disguise as secularism, his positions haven’t always been consistent, while his party has not been immune from the disease which blights French politics as a whole. Yet, of course racialised categories do not extinguish the ontology of class, such that typically Mélenchon is rated very highly in France’s most diverse cities and neighbourhoods, as well as in its overseas territories. The implication is that France’s ethnic and religious minority communities often reject their abstract representation in elite politics and shun the cheerleading of the ‘Velib’ (folding bike) left.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the far right often link Marine Le Pen and Jen-Luc Mélenchon on account of their ostensibly similar anti-globalisation positions. This both helps and harms his campaign, appealing to the traditional communist voter who switched allegiance to the far right and alienating those middle-class supporters who value France’s global ambition.
The truth is that France is at a crossroads with respect to the shape of its domestic economy and its role in the world. Macron has been busy dismantling France’s employment protections and welfarist apparatus, building his ‘start up nation’ by welcoming a hoard of multinational corporations and subsidising a new small business entrepreneurialism.
In Macron, France is sure to have its neoliberal standard bearer in the second round of the Presidential election. The key question is – will he face the left or the right? That choice is in fact the most serious – its outcome would completely change the tone of the debate and the trajectory of post-election France. Mélenchon would frame the contest as a referendum on protecting France’s social programs, while Le Pen would have it corrupted by a toxic debate on the values of patriotism. It is clear that only a Mélenchon victory can oppose the tidal wave of neoliberal globalisation visited upon France by Macron and his coterie of elite reactionaries.
Contact Jay to sign an open letter from Scottish socialists supporting Melenchon’s candidacy.