French Presidential Election: Jean Luc Mélenchon and ‘left populism’.
Reuters reports (Sunday),
Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon embraced technology during the launch of his presidential campaign at a rally in Lyon on Sunday, with a 3D hologram of him making his speech appearing at the same time at another rally in Paris.
Mélenchon, wearing a Nehru-style jacket, tried to use the hologram technology give a modern look to his launch, which coincided with that of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon opened his meeting, transmitted by hologram to Paris, with a rousing speech. But it was hard to hide that the selection of the radical green socialist, Benoît Hamon as Socialist Party candidate, has created profound difficulties for the leader of La France insoumise.
After Hamon’s victory the French left is divided. While many welcomed the Socialists’ change in direction, for the majority of Ensemble, an alliance of radical left currents and part of the (nearly defunct Front de gauche), Mélenchon remains central to the left’s prospects in France.
On the Ensemble site Roger Martelli writes of the left’s Presidential candidates, (Gauche : et maintenant ?)
Depuis une quinzaine d’années, il est de tous les combats majeurs visant à redonner au peuple sa souveraineté et à la gauche son dynamisme. Son programme, dans la continuité de celui de 2012, reprend la logique « antilibérale » et démocratique qui s’est déployée après le choc de la présidentielle de 2002.
For over 15 years he has been there in all the principal battles which have aimed to return to the people their soveriegnty and to the left its dynamism. His programme, consistent with the (Presidential election) of 2012 (when Mélenchon stood, backed by the Front de gauch left bloc), takes up again the « anti-liberal » and democratic logic used since the shock of the 2002 Presidential elections.
Au fond, Benoît Hamon incarne la continuité d’un Parti socialiste qui a accompagné les reculs successifs d’un socialisme devenu hégémonique au début des années 1980. Jean-Luc Mélenchon ouvre la voie d’une rupture dont toute la gauche pourrait bénéficier.
At root Benoît Hamon embodies continuity with a Parti Socialiste which has, since it became hegemonic since the start of the 1980s, has been marked by a succession of backward steps. Jean-Luc Mélenchon opens up the prospect of a radical break, from which all the left could benefit.
Martelli’s reference to “popular sovereignty” raises perhaps one of the most serious problems about Mélenchon’s campaign. The leader of La France Insoumise is not only concerned with “une majorité populaire à gauche”. Or a ” dose” of populism into the left, to re-occupy the field of social division, with a campaign that can express a radical protest vote.
Another Adieu au Prolétariat.
Mélenchon’s ambitions extend far and wide as he asserts the need to replace the traditional strategies of the left.
In a series of writings he has talked about L’Ère du peuple in (the grandly titled) “époque de l’Anthropocène.” (the ‘new epoch’ in human political geography). In this perspective the old ‘hierarchy’ of struggles, centred on the primacy of the proletariat as a political subject, has been surpassed.
In a short history which takes him from the people as a ” multitude ” (without cohesion), the people/working class, as a demand-making category, we have come to the age of « networks » (réseaux). And, in France, more specifically, as he puts it himself, “réseau de soutien à ma candidature et à son programme”. (Réseaux et mouvements. 7th of January 2017)
The network launched as La France Insoumise is at the core of the electoral and social strategy. Mélenchon is engaged in an explicit effort to capture (in his terms, form), the People, in opposition to the Oligarchy, financial and globalising. It is not shaped only by economic issues, but the with the wider effects of capitalism in society: marginalisation, social division, the long series of cultural contradictions and demands of the diverse oppressed groups. Above all it aims to “net” the concept of the People, and refound the left as a movement capable of structuring it politically as a force for progressive transformation (details of the programme on their site). Membership of what might be called a permanent “rally” does not require payment, only backing.
Supporters put this project in the same political sphere as Podemos, as a movement that aims to expand the field of democratic mobilisation against the political caste (la casta), more commonly called, in French and in English, the elites.
For this venture, which draws on the writings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, populism is a political logic. The objective is to unify, to create a radical democratic People, not as (it is asserted) through the forms of exclusion and division, between “us”, on ethnicity or nationality and others.
Citizen-Movement and the Leader.
But, as Pierre Khalfa has observed, the “citizen-movement”, La France Insoumise, charged with this objective, organised in hundreds of “groupes d’appui” (support groups) is not democratic in the sense that political parties are – in principle. (Le peuple et le mouvement, est-ce vraiment si simple?). There are no organised confrontations between different currents of opinion; disagreements only arise over applying the ‘line’ in local conditions. There is, in fact,the worst form of Occupy style ‘consensus politics”, ruling out by fait real dissensus, wedded to the decisions of the Chief. It is “JLM who decides”. Or, as Laclau put it, the, “..the “symbolic unification of a group around an individuality” is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’ (Page 100. On Populist Reason 2005. ) (1)
Critics point to the lack of coherence in the definition of the would-be “people” a vast category with many internal conflicts between social groups. They also state that it is also highly unlikely that the ambition to remould populist resentment, expressed and solidly articulated in the Front National’s nationalist attacks on globalisation and a whole range of groups, from Muslims to migrant workers, has struck deep into French political reality. Detaching the ‘floating signifier’ of the People and putting it to a new use is a hard task. It more probable, and Mélenchon’s comments on Europe, migrant labour and the importance of the French ‘nation’, that it will end up more influenced by nationalism than become an alternative to it. Over everything lingers Pierre Khalfa put it the figure of “l’homme providentiel”, the Man of Destiny. (Le populisme de gauche, un oxymore dangereux).
In these conditions it is little wonder that many of the French left are not just wary of Mélenchon, but actively hostile to his entire project.
It is equally not surprising that elsewhere would-be People’s Leaders, like George Galloway in Britain, have warmed to La France Insoumise.
(1)Le peuple et le « mouvement. Jean-Luc Mélenchon (2.11.16. Blog).
“Il n’y a pas de carte. Il ne peut y avoir des cotisations mais seulement des participations financières à l’action c’est-à-dire des dons ou des versements réguliers pendant la durée de celle-ci. Il n’y a pas d’autre discipline que celle de l’action, c’est-à-dire celle que chacun s’impose dans l’action individuelle ou collective.” In other words, la France Insoumise is devoted to the “action” of getting votes.