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The Crisis of Left Populism in France.

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Left Wing Populism Faces French Crisis.

The End of “left-wing Populism”?

On the 11th of May Jean-Luc Mélenchon presided in Marseille over one of his many public rallies. This was one had a new angle. On the 11th of May he had invited the principal ‘left populist’ parties in Europe. An alliance, under the name of Maintenant le Peuple, claiming to be a European Citizens’ Revolution, was backed by his own “point de ralliement”, La France insoumise (LFI), Podemos, the Portuguese left bloc, the Bloco, and parties of the Swedish, Danish and Finish radical left. The immediate plan (while awaiting the “révolution citoyenne en Europe”), was to restructure the left in the European Parliament, inside the GUE/NGL. (See: Elections européennes : La France insoumise, chronique d’un désastre annoncé )

Last Sunday’s European elections saw the Continent’s radical left go from 52 MEPs to 41. Nowhere were the ambitions of the new alliance less answered than in France. Mélenchon’s list led (after considerable internal rumblings about its make-up) by Manon Aubry got 6,3% – below the objective of 11% and well short of Mélenchon’s Presidential score in 2017 of 19, 58 %. Just above the Parti Socialiste-Place Publique list led by 6,2% LFI was well behind the French Green EELV at 13,5%. LFI now has 5 MEPs, EELV 10. 

“No self criticism!” (Ne pas faire de auto-critique) was heard from the movement on the evening as these results came through. This was, predictably, not followed. LFI MP, Clémentine Autain, with an independent base in the bloc of left groupings, Ensemble, made a very public intervention in Le Nouvel Observateur (Clémentine Autain tire les leçons des Européennes).

She observed that La France insoumise was backed by 36% of its voters in 2017 while 57% of Macron’s supporters from that year chose his list and 78% of Marine Le Pen’s have voted for the Rassemblement National. Their “political capital” had been severely eroded.

There was no official response, although Manon Aubry  registered her movement’s activists’ hard work and disappointment, while stating that LFI had still shown that it anchored itself on the political scene. (Déclaration de Manon Aubry)

Clémentine Autain

How had this come about? Autain questioned the left populist strategy of dividing the people into an “us” and the “elites”, including intellectuals and the media. They had built walls rather than bridges. The deputy observed that Mélenchon had railed against those who’d supported a petition to support migrants, while he had let a sovereigntist wing, increasingly nationalist, best known for François Cocq et Djordje Kuzmanovic, off with mild rebukes. That is, until one of them, Andrea Kotarac, made an open appeal to vote for Marine le Pen. This did not show difficulties about the internal democracy of the LFI – a point few would ignore. It shied away from the need not the rebuild the old union of the left but to bring together “le peuple sur une base de gauche “, the people on a left-wing basis.

There are those who claim that LFI lost out by dropping the more forceful aspects of its ‘populism’, their journey from celebrating the Brexit vote (which did not go unnoticed amongst the internationalist anti-Brexit left in the UK), to an ever-increasingly watered down demand to ‘renegotiate’ EU treaties eroded support. Others point to his ill-judged ‘war’ with the media, the hysterical reaction to an investigation into their use of EU funds, his “command and control” approach to his movement (” le but du mouvement de la France insoumise n’est pas d’être démocratique mais collectif”), the feeble participation in its “on line” votes, and  Mélenchon’s irksome traits, above all his tendency to attack in all directions at once. LFI, some estimate looking at internal party consultation rates rather than the massive 500,000 click supporters, may be effectively total 20,000 activists, at most.

In Le Monde yesterday Manuel Cervera-Marcel listed the ‘left populist’ strategy, designed to replace the social democratic and neo-liberal left. Citing Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s approach, for the author it claims to replace the old left/right division by the “people versus the oligarchy”. These parties have a charismatic leader to incarnate the ‘people’ runs parties. They claim to give a voice (‘articulate’) popular demands against these ‘elites’, in LFI terms, “federate the people”). Finally it proposed taking over the ‘floating signifiers’ of the Nation, Security and Order, and giving them a democratic content. (Elections européennes 2019 : « Le recul de la gauche “radicale” ne s’explique-t-il pas par le tournant “populiste” de ces dernières années ? »)

Laclau and Mouffe’s strategy in question.

Cerbera-Marcel suggests that this approach can have immediate electoral benefits but that results, such as the European election defeat of LFI and the shrinking of Podemos in those and Spanish national elections, suggests that short-term popularity can easily be lost.  A much more extensive list of criticisms of the skeleton and the details of this strategy, from the abstractions of Laclau and Mouffe to the practice of left populist parties, above all, La France Insoumise and Podemos has already been made by people on the left. French contributions can be seen in, for example, La stratégie de Mélenchon se discute. Nous-le peuple, eux-les élites : un nouveau populisme de gauche and   Populisme de gauche, du nouveau ? Sur le dernier livre de Chantal Mouffe.

This is not the place to go into details about them. Yet one could usefully begin with Laclau’s efforts to designate forerunners of modern populism amongst the British Chartists. Drawing on the studies of Stedman Jones, Laclau talked of how the “us” and “them” was constructed between the “producers” and “idlers”, Old Corruption Jones, made this relevant point, “The self-identity of radicalism was not at of any specific group, but of the ‘people; or the ‘nation’ against the monopolisers of political representation and power and hence financial or economic power “. That is, it was not capitalism, a system of exploitation, injustice and oppressions, but those “monopolisers” who were at fault. Stedman Jones, Laclau notes, saw how this channelling was warded off by legislative reform. This channelling of democratic demands through political action, within the limited space of restricted, but gradually expanding franchise paralleled the High Victorian separation between the economy and politics. (1)

The People and its Parasitic Other.

One might speculate that the major fault of left populism is to divide the world into the “people” and this parasitic ‘elite’ concentrated in the ‘casta’ giving the impression that capitalist exploitation is created by politics. The ‘logic of populism’ is to unite against them, and to project the hatred talked about by Autain onto this “oligarchy, the source of their problems. One can only register that many Gilets Jaunes have this focus in their demands for a  “moral economy” to meet their needs without any vision of a real change to economic and social structures. (3)

An ever-expanding pile of pamphlets, of which the virulent diatribe against the Macronie (as his critics call the Macron ‘system’) by Juan Branco (Crépuscule. 2019) is by no means the worst, takes up against Corruption. It offers no way of uniting the popular electorate for a positive programme of emancipation. It is the seed-bed for the extreme right’s charges of “conspiracies” against the people, ‘betrayals’ by cosmopolitan elites, Globalism, People-Nations against International Elites. In short, it opens the way through an easy “chain of equivalences” to National Populism.

The principal French national populist party,. Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National, is a  materialised bearer of Laclau’s abstract ‘rhetoric’ about the People versus the Elites. It is well funded, have hundreds elected figures:

Députés
6 / 577
Sénateurs
1 / 348
Députés européens
20 / 74
Conseillers régionaux
306 / 1 758
Conseillers départementaux
58 / 4 108
Maires
29 / 36 635
Conseillers municipaux
1 533 / 536 519

Anybody playing with the language of populism will run up against their simple, easy to understand, law and order, nationalist, political message. That’s without even looking at the strong “affects” and “libidinal ties” the far-right can draw on to spread its nationalist message to the ‘nationalised’ left populist people.

La France insoumise, far from freeing voters from their grip, may well have given their message an easier ride to first place in the French European elections, at 23,3%

The experience of the Brexit left in the UK confirms that anti-EU populism, even when only a small minority of them have openly endorsed the far-right Brexit Party, is another route to boost the national populists.

As an outside observer one can only commend Autain for her stand. Mélenchon’s strategy, his ‘rally’ (point de ralliement) run top down, a Net Corporation (though its media company failed) with “groupes d’appui’ (branches kept deliberately small to discourage organised disagreement) federating the people without respecting a vibrant internal democracy, his seductive rhetoric, with fewer and fewer listening, is part of a wider problem. As a less than outsider, not as a looker-on, but an active participant in the European left, it has been obvious that the ‘left-populist’ turn was not headed in the right direction. Those who praised Mélenchon, whether academics playing at politics in journals like Jacobin and its subsidiary in the UK, Tribune, or engaged in mass politics, have been misled. We can see in France how rancour is not only a bad starting point, but a way that leaves open national populists and business liberals of the stripe of Emmanuel Macron dominate the show – with of course some Greens who also deny the ‘left right’ division playing on the sidelines.

Autain’s intervention is a good and positive sign. A green socialism, a reformist and a radical socialist way forward, has, many would agree,  to be grounded on gathering together of the left, campaigns and the labour movement, with a generous and appealing vision of the future. 

There remain forces in La France insoumise who wish to contest any such refoundation of the left.

Image may contain: 2 people, crowd and outdoor

 

*****

  1. Pages 90 -91. On Populist Reason. Ernesto Laclau. Verso. 2005.
  2. Page 104 Languages of Class. Studies in English Working Class History 1832 – 1982. Gareth Stedman Jones. Cambridge University Press. 1983.
  3. In L’économie morale et le pouvoir. Samuel Hayat makes an interesting compassion between E.P.Thompson’s The Moral Economy of the English crowd and the demands of the Gilers Jaunes. In   Le Fond de l’air est Jaune. Seuil. 2019.
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