With polling about to begin, the leader of La France Insoumise, must now wait and see if his incredible campaign has done enough to get him to the second round. In the past month, Mélenchon has gone from strength to strength. Here’s why.
In the wake of Benoït Hamon’s victory in the Socialist primary a few months ago, speculation abounded about whether the socialist candidate could rein in its rogue ex-member, and prevent the leftist vote being irrevocably split, come the elections. Hamon didn’t manage this. For many, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s refusal to come in from the cold, and hand over his hefty stockpile of votes, to the unified leftist front, was an unnecessary tragedy, fueled by one man’s ego.
But now Mélenchon’s stubbornness has been overwhelmingly vindicated, and the rogue outsider, has entered the central contest, as a real contender. Hamon, on the other hand has receded into a distant fifth place, unable to break into double figures in the polls. Meanwhile Mélenchon has undergone a remarkable climb. In the past month, the leader of La France Insoumise (Defiant France), has risen by about 7.5 points, siphoning support from both Hamon, Macron and Le Pen, and is tussling for third place with Francois Fillon (the Republican candidate who after winning the right-wing primary, was heavily tipped to become president in May). It’s not surprising therefore, to see that a role reversal has taken place concerning Hamon and Mélenchon. Now, it is the former’s candidature that is seen as the sad reality, ailing the Left’s prospects. So much so that last week, a spokesperson for La France Insoumise, tactfully called on Hamon ‘not to be an obstacle’.
Mélenchon’s radically leftist programme directly challenges the liberal economic orthodoxy, with huge levels of public spending, increased taxation, welfare provision, and regulation. The former socialist wants to kick-start the economy with a huge injection of 173 billion euro, which would primarily be financed through borrowing. Mélenchon’s huge spending program would be partly compensated by heightened govt revenue, thanks to a re-codified tax contribution scheme, that would see fiscal contributions rise from 45% to 49.2% of GDP by 2022. The most radical aspect of this re-codification is a 90% tax on annual revenues exceeding 400,000. Mélenchon’s critics have condemned this as wealth confiscation pure and simple, but Mélenchon insists his fiscal reforms will ensure everyone contributes in proportion to their income, and that the middle and lower classes are not overburdened.
An Impressive Campaign
While Mélenchon’s radical economic programme may hold appeal for some, the movement behind the campaign itself has been particularly effective, in promoting La France Insoumise. It has enjoyed a unique enthusiasm, driving its vibrantly innovative campaign that has succeeded in gaining attention in several ways, such as the hologram stunt at his campaign launch. It enabled the 65-year old to appear before crowds in Lyon and Paris at the same time! Last week, his campaign reproduced this trick, transmitting their leader to 6 different cities in France and even in La Réunion. This innovation seems present at a grassroots level too. Recently a group of Melenchon supporters designed an online computer game FiskalCombat, which one plays as Melenchon, fighting off the evil neo-liberal baddies, like Juncker and Sarkozy. ‘In all my years of activism’, affirms a spokesman of La France Insoumise, ‘I’ve never seen such a dynamic. There is a creative activism, a real intensity coming from below…’
Yet more remarkable still, are the huge numbers of people who have been drawn to his rallies. Last month in Paris, on the anniversary of the Paris Commune, over 100,000 people attended his march for a 6th Republic, and earlier this month, 70,000 people turned out in Marseille, where Mélenchon, sporting an olive branch, denounced Trump’s illegal missile launch on Syria, and bellowed, ‘I am the candidate of peace!’. While Mélenchon may be trailing behind the front runners Macron and Le Pen in the polls, for Osons Causer of MediaPart, ‘the sheer number of people turning up to his rallies has never before been seen in an election. If he gets to the second round, he has a chance of winning’. Additionally, the growing numbers at his rallies are not simply made up of those already convinced. Indeed one noteworthy fact about this election is the high level of undecided voters, as Anne Jadot of Lorraine University explains,
…there are those who hesitate about voting at all, and those who can’t decide between Hamon, Macron and Mélenchon…but the rise of Mélenchon is real…he is no longer just a vote of conviction. In people’s minds he has become a plausible alternative.
With heightened prospects of success, Mélenchon’s campaign has re-fashioned itself as it maneuvers into mainstream contention. Gone is Mélenchon’s campaign of 2012 – The Left Front – with its traditional red flags of the left, it’s impetuous and insurrectionist connotations. Instead, Mélenchon has cut a more serene and consensual image for himself; the insurrectionist has become the sage. Nowadays his rallies are covered with the French tri-color. Denis Sieffert, editor of Politis suggests that Mélenchon’s changed image, away from the partisan left, reflects the challenging heterogeneity of his growing support base, made up of ex-hollandists, communists, undecided voters, Europhobes and Europhiles, environmentalists, melenchonists from the start, and the simply curious. A major reason for Mélenchon’s success in uniting disparate support groups is his oratory skills and rich use of language, which has even won him the admiration of Fillon voters.
Thinking Big about the future
Yet more than all this, Mélenchon has managed to convince a large number of voters, that his politics, for all their potential damage, and instability, best understand the fundamental wrongs and problems within France, Europe, and the World. He exemplifies a historically conscious visionary, with a sophisticated sense of the past and present, and an intuitive vision toward how the world must change. This is likely what makes him the most popular candidate among students and young voters. The risk of his program is the price paid for an ambitious political vision, and people seem inclined to accept this.
First, his policy towards the EU is a case in point. It carries the risk of France leaving the EU, should Germany refuse to renegotiate the Treaty of Maastricht, budgetary restrictions and the politics of austerity. Yet while the media and the political establishment like to bracket Mélenchon with Le Pen, as a close-minded, anti-EU protectionist, many voters aspire to seeing the economic orthodoxy of the EU up-ended, and Mélenchon embodies these hopes.
The traditional narrative that he is anti-EU is being challenged. Instead Mélenchon is contributing to a process already begun, of promoting a new idea of European solidarity, that sympathizes with the victims of austerity, and promotes a pan-European populist front against Brussels, Berlin, and the economic orthodoxy, ‘we will not abandon Greece’, he affirms, ‘we must explain to them (Germany) the difficulty in which the second economy of Europe is faced with’.
The 6th Republic.
Secondly, it isn’t just the EU that Mélenchon’s wishes to see reformed radically, but the French political state also. The centerpiece of La France Insoumise’s political program is the establishment of a 6th republic, and the abolition of what Mélenchon calls the presidential monarchy. He wishes to usher in fundamental constitutional reform, based around the calling of a new constituent assembly of citizens that will sweep away party politics, and instead ‘federate the people’, and create a new constitution. He even wants some within the assembly to be chosen at random. As well as this, Mélenchon wants to create a legal process that will allow for a referendum on whether to retain, or dismiss an elected leader. His critics warn that such reforms will render France ungovernable. They point to the huge discontent toward the past two presidencies to show that such direct democratic processes would constantly hamper the cultivation of strong and stable government. But again, these radical proposals reflect a discontent toward the political establishment, that is widespread in France. French people disdain how their politicians are paid so well, live like princes, while in places like Scandinavia; politicians are treated as normal citizens, with normal salaries. More than this, the business of politics is seen as inherently corrupt. Mireille, a 70 year old lady based in Lyon, wasn’t one bit surprised by the revelations in Le Canard Enchaïné (about Francois Fillon using state funds to pay his wife, for an empty job tittle). Nor was her anger specifically targeted at Fillon. Her instinct was that some other politician was behind the publication, and sunk Fillon’s electoral hopes for their own benefit. Fillon may be corrupt, but they all are, was Mireille’s reasoning, and many French people share this view. So on a general level, Mélenchon’s constitutional reforms ring positive with those fed-up with what they see as a morally bankrupt political elite.
Another attraction of Mélenchon’s constitutional upheavals is that they will bring an end to traditional party politics. Because, like his desire to alter the EU, or go strong on the environment, his proposals are a response to a current arrangement no longer deemed adequate. An end to party politics is what many French people look to, because, particularly after five years of Socialists austerity, they no longer see any meaningful difference between the Socialists and Republicans. For many, particularly the young, the traditional party divide does not offer distinct alternatives, on the burning issues of employment, austerity, and state provision. Here, it is useful to mention Emmanuel Macron. Many of his detractors deride his claim that by being outside the major political parties, he offers something new. In reality, the story of Macron’s rise, shines light on the unanimity regarding economic policy that exists in the powerful world where public administration and politics intersect. An attitude has developed alongside the ‘Macronmania’ (and totally overshadowed by it), that it is this world, the world of public administration, where the real decisions are made, and for which, party politics is merely a sideshow, falsely presented to the public as the arena where decisions are made, when in fact it isn’t. Macron is merely a man of this world, as his economic program reflects, posing as something new, when in actual fact he epitomizes this lack of an economic alternative that so many people now want to see.
A third aspect, which also forms part of Mélenchon’s constitutional reform, is the environment. Of all the major candidates left in the race, he is the only one who places the environment as a top priority. He wants to phase out France’s dependence on nuclear energy by developing renewable sources. More than this, Mélenchon wants to enshrine an environmental code into the new constitution that will place sustainability, and environmentally-conscious living, as core elements of a renewed republican spirit. This would include giving special treatment to environmental businesses, and those with a ‘social value’, and increased investment into research and development of socially useful, and sustainable schemes.
Lastly, on questions of international politics, Mélenchon promotes himself as the candidate of peace. Yet in reality, his position taps into a widespread anti-American sentiment in France, which has no faith in the US’s ethical integrity in geopolitical affairs, and is open to regarding Russia in a more objective light. On a personal level however, Mélenchon’s anti-Americanism is more linked to his anti-capitalism. Like with the EU, observers have drawn parallels with Le Pen, as both candidates seem inclined toward rapprochement with Russia. Mélenchon’s argues that America’s neo-liberal world order threatens the UN, and undermines international law, and peace. He professes a straightforward commitment to the UN, as the sole institution in which geopolitics can be decided. He is opposed to NATO, the G8, and G20, calling them, ‘little rich clubs that decide international law’.
Incarnating a desire for change
The extent of his support shows that Mélenchon’s ambitious vision for the future is one that many people would like to see. Melenchon’s charisma has helped to convince many that his program is not unrealistic, but on the contrary, is exactly what France now needs. During the hype of election season, he has successfully cast himself as the providential figure of the Left, following in the footsteps of its heroes, now come to carve out the future direction of the country. As he explained to a group of students in 2015,
…there can be a providential man or women, but there is no such thing as Providence. There are only circumstances.
And the circumstances have now arrived. From the Eurozone crisis exposing the unilateral nature of the EU; to global warming, Hollande’s betrayal of the left, the inadequacy of party politics, and the failure of the American order to bring peace, a general mood has grown that believes a radical alternative may be needed. And Mélenchon’s whole campaign feeds of this general sense of dissatisfaction, and he incarnates this national mood. And incarnation is important. As the political commentator Stéphane Rozès explains,
…the French presidency, with its unique laic identity, functions as a kind of collective unconscious that makes incarnation so vital. For the candidate who wants to adapt her/himself, and blend into, identify with, and exemplify the changing attitudes and desires of the country’s imagination, especially in times of crisis, the relationship with political incarnation becomes vital. Mélenchon gets this, and plays the game well.
The Ultimate Gamble: Dégagisme
Mélenchon’s ability to appear as a truly national figure, despite his radically left-wing agenda, has led to scolding attacks on his program. Notable among these is the right-wing daily Le Figaro that has made much of Mélenchon’s close connections to revolutionary dictators in Latin America, particularly Hugo Chavez. The dire situation in Venezuela is used as a sort of warning as to what lies in wait should Mélenchon be elected. Yet these connections are very real, and Mélenchon has never tried to conceal them. Indeed Mélenchon’s politics are largely conditioned by the history of South American populism, and its struggle against a financial oligarchy. For him, the aspirations of men such as Chavez draws parallels with his own in France. So much so, that only a few days ago on French radio, Mélenchon claimed that the current protests in Caracas, in which two people have been killed, and the protests in France last summer, in reaction to worker rights being curbed, are part of the same struggle.
The interviewer’s consternation following this claim reflects a lot of French peoples’ alarm towards the prospect of a Mélenchon presidency, and the interminable chaos that could result. And in the final debate on Thursday, it was evident, that Mélenchon wished to reassure against such alarm. ‘I am not the man of chaos’, he insisted. But in reality, Mélenchon’s programme is full of uncertainty, notably regarding France’s future relationship with the EU, the sustainability of his economic programme, and his radical constitutional reform. But apart from Latin America, Mélenchon also draws inspiration from the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, and the movement that became known as Dégagisme. Dégage, meaning ‘Get out of the way’, is what the crowds chanted in the streets against their president, Ben Ali.
Mélenchon has incorporated the term into his own discourse. After Hamon’s victory in the primary against the centrist Valls, Mélenchon wrote a tribute entitled Valls valse: encore une victoire du dégagisme (The Valls waltz: another victory for dégagisme). For Mélenchon, dégagisme represents the changing mood in France that is blindly rejecting the status quo. He goes on to explain his candidature as an attempt to harness this rejection for the good, before everything descends into chaos. Yet other proponents of the term explain it as a de-lodging of power, and not the seizure of it,
What is Dégagisme? It basically means two things; telling those in power to vacate it, without having to show that a fully formed alternative exists; and without simply wanting to take its place. Simply, to say ‘dégage’, is to accept the risk of a vacuum, to contemplate this vacuum, and see what happens within it.
It is the common fear of this vacuum that inclines Mélenchon to stress that he has a cohesive program, that is ready to fill it. He is a revolutionary, but a responsible and organized revolutionary. Whether people accept this remains to be seen, but his vision is appealing. Either way, Mélenchon is clearly optimistic about the future, optimistic that a 6th Republic is governable, optimistic that the German will negotiate. Yet at the same time, he’s also quoted as saying, ‘I am no Alexis Tsipras. I don’t negotiate for 17 hours with people that insult me’. He might be optimistic, but unlike many of the electorate, Mélenchon isn’t afraid of break-up and fragmentation. In fact, this is what dégagisme can be defined as – ‘a time of high but rich uncertainty’, in which all sorts of things are possible, but the prospect of damage, must also be accepted.