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Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Criticism, the Programme, and ‘Federating the People’.

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L’avenir en Commun. Le programme de la France insoumise et son candidat, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Seuil. December 2016.

Before introducing this we have to put the small fraction of our leftist readership who are unaware of this out of their misery.

Mélenchon’s Trotskyist past was as a ‘Lambertist‘, that it the most ‘orthodox’, not to say stultified tradition of French Trotskyism, at the time in the shape of the Organisation communiste internationale (OCI), at the time run by its thuggish leader  Pierre Boussel, best known under his pseudonym Pierre Lambert. 

This is perhaps misleading.  Mélenchon’s real political debts, he would be the first to thank us for pointing out, lie towards former president Mitterrand -(Jean-Luc Mélenchon, le dernier mitterrandiste).

This is equally not a background which endears him to everybody on the left.

The below sketches some reasons to be sceptical about Mélenchon.

Unlike  in today’s Guardian we concentrate on the published programme of his Presidential candidacy.

A critical overview of the main axes of the programme of La france insomouise.

This programme, for the 2017 French Presidential elections and for the legislative elections that follow them, addresses the state of France, “note pays”, our country, in a vibrant call to action. Ecological issues, the land’s social disasters (unemployment, poverty and ethnic and religious divisions, ‘communautarismes’) are, writes Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the Introduction, three aspects of the same reality, “We are suffocating under the rule of Finance.” Finance governs the world. Its greed, and the free-market, are destroying human beings and the planet.

For the candidate of La France insoumise the priority is to give power to the people (“donner le pouvoir, tout le Pouvoir, au peuple’). Mélenchon calls for an assembly, made up of those who have never before been elected to Parliament, to write a new constitution that will replace the “monarchie présidentielle”. With “ecological planning” a new model will be created. France will become a “universalist nation” (nation universaliste), conquering its “independence”, outside of NATO, acting to create a new alter-globalisation” alliance of the world’s peoples. France will bring a special contribution to green maritime development, to space exploration, and information technology.

Down with the Oligarchy!

The programme begins by observing that citizens’ power is thwarted in the present French politics are dominated by the “oligarchy”, the “collusion between politics and finance”, run by a “caste of the privileged”. The programme proposes a series of measures to stem corruption, to end the connivance between politicians and business, and the influence of lobbyists to break the influence of this financial-political elite. Infringements will be punished with the full force of the law.

The Universalist republic will then be in a position to defend an open approach to French nationality, advance a patriotism that is opposed to racism and all forms of discrimination, and abolish “state and social patriarchy”, including the abolition of prostitution (“abolir la prostitution”, this claim is made on Page 29).

The platform calls for new citizens’ initiatives, referenda, rights to recall MPs, guarantees of media pluralism, the constitutional embodiment of the rights of people at work, protecting common property, “air, water, food, health, energy, the means of life, the currency (..) For young people, after, lowering the voting age to 16, la France insoumise, proposes an obligatory “ service citoyen” (including a military option) or the under 25s, paid at the minimum wage, for nine months.

Particular attention is paid to France’s overseas territories, from the Caribbean to the other ‘confettis of the empire’ in the Pacific, South America and the Indian Ocean, whose equality will be established within the French administrative domain. They will become “pilots” of the ecological planning. In this respect the “économie de mer” from aquaculture onwards, will spearhead development.

L’avenir en Commun promises to out an end to the economic “pillaging” of the Nation (capital letter in original, Page 45). Not only are privatisations and ‘public-private’ partnerships targeted, but the effects of social dumping. In “défense de notre souveraineté industrielle”, “protectionnisme solidaire” is proposed. Trade agreements have to be revised and other measures taken to project social rights and employment, against multinationals and international finance. Production must be re-localised. To fight against unemployment there will be investment in green infrastructure projects…

Fiscal Revolution.

The programme has drawn particular attention for its “révolution fiscale” and other ideas in the industrial/economic field (a more detailed account here) A rise in the minimum wage (16%) parallels a maximum salary for company bosses, on a ratio of 1 to 20 of the lowest wage, restrictions of redundancies, and a return to the contract protection pre-Loi Khomri are amongst measures proposed. There are plans to restore retirement at 60, a continued reduction of the working week, increased holidays, and a wish to ‘eliminate poverty’.

Critics focus on the cost, hidden by a slight of hand in which spending is transformed into a way cost-free boosting the economy (without major tax rises on the ordinary person or indeed much directly on most businesses). Others ask how the economy is going to be radically transformed by government legislation. There is no specific mention of independent working class or social movement initiatives outside of the political framework of the new 6th Republic, or to be exact, how they might engage in working through, from the grass-roots, independent forms of  new economic and social life.

Dead Europe.

Mélenchon prefaces the section on Europe by asserting that the “Europe of our dreams is dead”. The present European Union has become reduced to a single market in which people are submitted to the rule of the banks and finance. Our “indépendance d’action et la souveraineté de nos décisions” must not be subjected to the ideological obsessions of the Commission which have led to this anti-democratic impasse.

La France insoumise intends to renegotiate existing European Treaties. In Plan A it is proposed, amongst other measures, to end the independence of the Central European Bank, devaluation of the Euro, a halt to extending market mechanisms to public services (railways, energy and telecommunications), and a European conference to settle member states’ debts. If this fails, Plan B, a halt to French contributions to the EU budget, and for the Banque de France to take back monetary control and prepare the way for an alternative monetary system to the Euro. It is not specified what will happen if this fails, other than extreme pressure will be put. Potentially, France may leave the Euro and, could possibly exit the EU itself.

What will happen if they try all of this, draw back to the Franc, there is a financial crisis of staggering proportions, and the economy starts to crack, is not explained.

Let us imagine, as some have done, how the various scenarios  for A and B would play out.

As Frédéric Lordon explains,

I think that comrade Mélenchon, if he did reach power and if he really intended to combine words with actions, would find himself facing very great adversity indeed. For over the last thirty years, capital has got comfortable and has no intention at all of letting all the freedoms it has conquered, all the comfort it has secured, being taken away again. We have to understand what entering into confrontation with capital again means. There we really have political battles…

Himself not immune to dreams of establishing national sovereignty Lordon imagines,

So both to protect Mélenchon and to keep watch over him, his election must be just the beginning of a political process of a whole different dimension, necessarily proceeding by way of popular mobilisations. I do not know if that means re-awakening the old memories of the Popular Front or whatever… but all the same…

This ends up, for the moment,  in an interminable argument about a possible exit of France from the EU.

Or not.

As perhaps his hero Mitterrand realised in the early 1980s, exiting European , not to mention global financial and commercial constrains is not so easy…..

Perhaps he should consult Jean-Pierre Chevènement….


Quand Jean-Luc Mélenchon dit qu’il veut « sortir des traités », cela a un sens. Ça ne peut signifier qu’une seule chose: si on sort des traités, on sort de fait de l’UE.

When Jean-Luc Mélenchon says he wants to leave the Treaties, that has a meaning. It has only one sense: if we leave the treaties we leave, in fact, the European Union…

Or not.

And so, on and on, in ever expanding and revolving  circles.

French Independence.

As part of his wider plans for sovereignty, and keen to assert the “indépendence” of France in the world, the platform, as cited, envisages not just renegotiating existing EU Treaties (or annulling them) but leaving NATO, but the IMF and the World Bank.

Yet we are promised that French overseas territories will join organisations for regional co-operation such as the Cuba and Venezuela ledAlliance bolivarienne.

In place of the existing military alliance, which drags European states behind the USA, France will be able to defend herself and act freely. In this sense a “coalition universelle”, UN mandated, to eradicate Daesh in Syria, has a part to play in establishing peace in that land, with free elections and a negotiated end to the civil war. Perhaps the reintroduction of military service will help France fulfill its part in the forces needed to meet this aim.

The programme wishes to continue to support the ‘two states’ solution to the Israel and Palestine conflict which is welcome.

The idea of France, a country which is a pillar of the international economic and military system, with a heavy colonial past, is an odd place from which to claim ‘independence’. One might say that the above objectives appear to give priority to a leading role in international affairs, not to freedom from overseas commitments.

There are many other measures in L’avenir en commun, on international co-operation to resolve the underlying causes of the different migration crises, for durable development, employees’ rights, a re-affirmation of secularist principles (laïcité), opening up education, and a ideas on health issues. The document includes a including a proposition to legalise, within regulated structures, cannabis. Asylum will be offered to freedom fighters (“combattants de la liberté”) such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (Page 89).

These are worth discussing on their individual merits, some of which (green policies, workers’ rights, legalising cannabis) are shared by his Socialist rival, Hamon indeed are better expressed by him.

The People….

This is the most contentious element in the platform of La France insoumise. In contrast to traditional left wing programmes there are no proposals for large-scale nationalisations. Economic strategy, apart from its green and social inflection, is centred on production in France within an expanded regulatory citizens’ right-based framework. It is the role of the people’s, re-formed, 6th republic to transmit these into practice.

The ‘sovereignty’ of the People as translated into this Sixth Republic, with the “transition écologique, are at the core of L’avenir en commun, ideas which also stand out from past radical left platforms, which have affirmed the central importance of the labour movement, or the working class and oppressed. Critics have not been slow to point out that the “L’ère du peuple” is not the epoch of the proletariat. What is less than clear is what The People are made of. French socialism, in the shape of the SFIO,  was founded as a citizens’ party,  not a class one, but recognised the importance of class interest. Apart from being against the oligarchs and elites nobody seems sure what the people is, positively, for, other than the accumulated traditions all so often evoked, a stance that has something in common with the 19th century non-Marxist current around the Revue Socialiste of Benoît Malon which considered socialism a broad stream of progressive thinking that extended to all people of good will. 

In the construction of the People, its ‘federation’ into an ‘us’ against the Oligarchs, the ‘them’, this ‘humanist populism’ relies on some ideas, perhaps better described as emotions, that are open to serious question. The first is the claim to republican  ‘patriotism’.

recent interview with Raquel Garrido, one of their spokespeople, elicited this response.

We are patriotic, not nationalist. Patriotism is love for one’s own, while nationalism involves hatred for others. In fact, according to the literary and political definitions, that is the difference. The far right is nationalist. We are patriotic. And patriotism is an empathy, an affect towards one’s compatriots. We really think that, insofar as our nation has been a civic nation since the French Revolution, it is not defined by any religion or skin colour or even language, it is universal. Our homeland [patrie] is republican.

Our patriotism is universalist. It is a patriotism of the Enlightenment. We think that precisely what our patriotism allows is the affirmation of citizens’ right to govern themselves. That is what our national sovereignty is, first of all meaning a popular sovereignty. Before anything else it is the question of the people’s political power. And fortunately for us, in our national history these two things are linked. That is why we think that the far right is not truly for sovereignty, because it supports only national, not popular sovereignty. It is for Marine Le Pen having power, not the French.

Apart from being one of the hoariest definitions of patriotism going, love of one’s own is many things, but by definition it is not love of ‘others’.

In constructing the ‘figure of the People’, Mélenchon and his allies, apart from their fuzzy progressivism, also appear to have much in common with the mid-19th century “internationalist republicans”. They wish to free the land from the forces of global capital, not Kings but the aristocrats of finance. But national histories have been profoundly affected by globalisation and there is little evidence that tearing up its roots is an easy task. How can we talk of the ‘national’ economy in the world today? What exactly is French ‘independence’?  What is the ‘national’ culture in a multicultural reality, not a policy but a fact.

It is hard to find  more substance in the programme of La France insoumise, that clarifies the meaning of ‘popular sovereignty’. People’s Power is about as precise as the evocation of a national General Will.  Of, as Garrido asserts, ‘the French’….

If it has any meaning it is largely negative, a desire to be ‘free of’ outside institutions, from EU Treaties to NATO.

Such a goal, of national independence and sovereignty, now stamped with green and social measures, and raises many issues if any moves are taken towards the end.

If the people is Mobilised to confront the rule of the “political caste” ‘finance’, EU Treaties, and the Commission (not capitalism as such), what is its future?  If La France insoumise ever swept the “oligarchy” from the Republic, how they could ever bridge the gap between their ‘universal’ aspirations, those in France who oppose their plans for the People, and those of other Peoples? Who would ‘federate’ them? What kind of universalism  would negotiations with the ‘non-civic’ nations and institutions result in?

The other set of issues concerns leadership.

What is there perhaps a role for a Chief, the Lider Maximo, of this left populism? Laclau whose work is freely drawn upon in the political logic of the project of La France insoumise, explicitly placed this role at the centre of his later writing on populism (On Populist Reason. 2005). It is right to ask, as Joshua Samuel has done, if  this is not the explicit intention behind constructing a movement, not a party, to support Mélenchon’s candidacy. (La France insoumise – « L’ère du peuple » et « l’adieu au prolétariat » ?)

This issue has not gone away, as this article illustrates, noting that the cult of the Man of Destiny is not part of French left-wing political culture, for all his claims to deny that he indulges it, while claiming to gather together the People and not the Left. “Le culte de l’homme providentiel accompagne le candidat sur son passage, ce n’est pourtant pas l’idée que l’on se fait de la politique à gauche, et dont il se défend lui-même. Certains parlent de césarisme, sinon de chavisme à la française. L’inquiétude est à son comble quand il prétend rassembler le peuple et non la gauche.”( Mediapart.  FRÉDÉRIC LUTAUD)

The author observes that  Mélenchon’ has a worryingly high number of fanatical, dedicated followers devoted to  his own personality…

There is plenty of evidence to back this up.


Interplanetary Missions.

In the final chapter, La France aux Frontières de l’Humanité a sketch of some of the features of a “nouvelle ère” of international co-operation is offered. It only increases the suspicion that this programme is marked by national messianism. Space-exploration, including a European-Russian Moon Base, support for a publicly owned Arianespace, and interplanetary missions, including to Mars, feature prominently. The development of France’s role as a “maritime power”, creating 300,000 jobs, in such areas a aquaculture and the French merchant navy, as well as the French role in robot and information technology, are some of the ideas for a people with a “special and passionate responsibility” (une responsabilité particulière et enthousiasmante!” (Page 119).

These ideas make it hard to not to think of the jibe against such claims of French special universal responsibilities, “A particularism masked as a universalism”.

Other material: Excitement in the French elections: the meaning of Jean-Luc Mélenchon  John Mullen

…if myself and my Trotskyist revolutionary friends were to decide to build a perfect mass campaign out of Lego, there would be a number of Mélenchon’s priorities we would leave in the box. He goes in for a particular brand of left patriotism: Insubordinate France distributes French flags at some rallies and the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, is sung. The words of the anthem were written as a call to arms against tyranny during the French Revolution, and Mélenchon’s line is that the real France is the tradition of the fight for republican equality and fraternity, the Paris commune and the welfare state established after world war two by the national committee of resistance. In addition, he puts great store on the positive influence that he says France has sometimes had in international diplomacy, and the positive role France could play in the United Nations in moving against war and against the great imperialist countries. Moreover, he is not opposed to France retaining its nuclear arms. Obviously, these are positions which revolutionaries would contest, and there are more objections too. Though he regularly denounces anti-Muslim prejudice, he tends to think, wrongly, that a Muslim fundamentalist threat is widespread in French society, and he has joined in misinformed speculation about the “real meaning” of a Muslim headscarf.

Overhauling French Politics

“At stake in Sunday’s French election is the specter of the far right, the neoliberalism of the extreme center, and Mélenchon’s challenge to the system itself.”

A useful interview with    if  marked by the initial  claim about the world historical effects that French protests against the reform of the Labour code last year, “These spectacular strikes, blockades, and demonstrations, notably Nuit Debout, really rocked the world’s stage, but especially the French stage, just one year ago.” Not to mention the puerile term, “the extreme centre”…

there is the fact that he identifies with the French state in every aspect. He really sees the French state in its republican form as defending the common interests of humanity. On one philosophical level, this is a sort of extension of the French Revolution’s emancipatory gesture, but it also translates into an identification with the French state in its actual repressive form.

And a much less favourable analysis: Anti-German, soft on Putin – Mélenchon is no saviour of the left.


Written by Andrew Coates

April 18, 2017 at 12:27 pm

4 Responses

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  1. So, Andrew, who to vote for?

    Nick Wright

    April 18, 2017 at 9:21 pm

  2. I am not French.

    Or as Mélenchon’s supporters would no doubt remind me, as they always do when referring to all the inhabitants of the British Isles, I am ‘anglo-saxon’ (…..).

    They would probably picture me thus:

    Andrew Coates

    April 19, 2017 at 10:19 am

  3. There’s something about Ms Nougayrède’s columns in the Guardian which almost automatically make me better disposed towards the object of her disapproval than I had been before. This was particularly the case after I read her whinge about Mélenchon. Horrors! The man’s against NATO! Is JLM an ideal candidate? No. Would I vote for him, faute de mieux, if I were in France? Bien sûr!


    April 19, 2017 at 3:31 pm

  4. She lost it for me when she defended Bernard-Henri Lévy

    This has happened on many occasions but this one stands out:

    BHL, porte-étendard libyen (Le Monde.fr, le 8 novembre 2011, article de Natalie Nougayrède)

    Amongst other words she talk of him as a “Byron romantique” – and it is not meant ironically. Or not exactly.


    Andrew Coates

    April 19, 2017 at 5:21 pm

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