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Jean-Luc Mélenchon Launches Presidential Campaign. On ‘Le populisme de gauche – Sociologie de la France insoumise. Manuel Cervera Marzal.’

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Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on his third bid for the Elysée, held his first Presidential campaign meeting at La Défense today with a call for a “union populaire” a “union par la base” (unity from below) against the Right. The 70 year old’s opinion poll rating stands at between 8 and 10%. That gives him the top score of the 7 French left candidates.

Yet if these divisions were not enough the leader of La France insoumise (LFI) has yet to create a full-hearted union with the majority those who have backed him in the past. The principal allies of LFI, Ensemble (who have 3 MPs), have yet to come out with clear support, as the tendency known as Ensemble Insoumis.es has complained. In an effort to bring some genuine unity to France’s left the “primaire populaire” continues to try to bring together people behind a vote for a common presidential candidate (Présidentielle : forte de sa dynamique, la primaire populaire espère toujours rassembler la gauche). This is unlikely to happen.

As it stands it looks unlikely if anybody on next year’s ballot for France’s Head of State from the Greens, Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, or LFI, will get enough support to get enough to challenge Emmanuel Macron, Marine le Pen, Éric Zemmour, although Mélenchon may beat the new standard-bearer of the traditional right-wing party, Les Républicaines, Valérie Pécresse, who hovers at just over 10%.

Confronting the far right.

How can the left make its presence felt in this environment? The left-populist US magazine Jacobin has just published The French Left Is Struggling to Win Back Voters Who’ve Turned to the Far Right by Manuel Cervera-Marzal. The article is devoted to the way LFI has tried to deal with the rise of the far-right in France, “Mélenchon’s approach is especially a response to the rise of the National Front (FN), and its mounting strength in blue-collar France. ” He suggests that “Despite its limitations, a left-populist strategy does in certain contexts seem able to allow the Left partly to reduce its distance from the working classes. Yet confronting the far right on its own terrain — on its preferred themes (immigration, security, nation, sovereignty) and in its own press organs (Valeurs actuelles, BFMTV, etc.) — is a highly risky operation, with little results to show.”

The Liege University sociologist has written a revealing study of the problems of La France Insoumise which ranges much further than the failure of its efforts to win over the irate and people inclined to the far right. These, difficulties – which indicate why the challenger for the Elysée is a divisive figure for the left – are deep-rooted. They amount to a serious democratic deficit. They cast doubt not just on its ‘left populist’ efforts to win over angry voters who opt for the far-right in the ballot box (‘fâches pas fachos’).

Le populisme de gauche – Sociologie de la France insoumise is an in-depth analysis of Mélenchon’s party-movement-rally. It evokes the leader’s career (from the Parti Socialiste, and four independent organisations before creating LFI in 2016), and his ‘charismatic’ impact, but the study’s joints and stays go beyond Mélenchon himself. That is, to the different dimensions that define a political party: its strategy, ideology, electorate, its structure, how it operates, and the way it talks to people, or, to use a word employed by left-populist theorist Chantal Mouffe, its “discourse”. It is punctuated with observations from LFI activists including those holding positions in the movement. They are often unnamed, for reasons which quickly become clear. Cervera-Marzal concludes with comparisons with the history and concept of populism and the French case of “un populisme de gauche à  l’européenne”.

Internationally La France insoumise is best known for the call “to rally ‘people’ from different political and ideological backgrounds against the ‘oligarchy’ theorised, with ideas about the “networked world” in which The People becomes an actor by networked connections, in short books such as  LÈre du peuple (2014). Classical Marxist ideas about class are sucked up inside the broader picture of a political and social, “popular” struggles against the ‘caste’ the globalising elites. He uses symbols of French national ‘revolutionary’ pride, like the Tricolore, and the Marseillaise is sung at his public meetings. For some time these declamations included favourable references to the Révolution Bolivarienne in Latin American, though following failures (to put it no higher) in Venezuela this is less prominent today.

Charismatic Leader’.

Mélenchon the man is famous as a talented orator who evokes the French Revolution and often illustrates his perorations with poems, calling himself “le tribun-poète”. His celebrated charisma is not universally admired. His last attempt to enter the Elysée in 2017 won a more than respectable 19,58% but still only 4th place in the first round. Outbursts of anger at, famously shouting “La Republique est moi” at a police officer wishing to seize documents from LFI’s HQ, are, Cervera-Marzal alleges better taken by activists and some of the “classes populaires” than the middle class. Others, one may remark, consider his aggressive outbursts ridiculous from the elderly gent.

But by far the most striking aspect of the present study is how people are organised inside the structures of the LFI ‘movement’. “Le mouvement n’est ni vertical, ni horizontal, il est gazeux” (the movement is neither top down, nor horizontal but effervescent) declared Mélenchon. This fizzing organisation has only three actual members, Manuel Bompard, Marie-Pierre Operandi and Benoît Schneckenburger, who form the legal entity “l’association France insoumise”, the Office, “le Bureau”. There is no vote and will never be a vote on Mélenchon’s self-proclaimed leadership. The 500, 000 or so people who have, at one time or another, clicked on the Net and networked with the movement are supporters nothing more. (Page 211) The yearly Conference, the Convention Nationale (two thirds attending are selected by lot, not elected) has no real debates and is described as “un show de rock stars”. On the ground LFI is organised in self-financing “groupes d’action” (the money largely goes on centrally run Net-based campaigns); activists have considerable autonomy on how to apply the line, deciding by consensus – votes are forbidden. Tendencies and factions are not permitted. You can be booted out without explanation or the right to appeal. There is not even a show-trial.

Harassement of Staff.

Cervera-Marzal says that LFI is made up like an onion, concentric circles, with an inner core, not a top down pyramid. This is not perhaps the best way to describe what is often chaotic operation, without people knowing who made what decision. National offices and support for the Parliamentary group work poorly paid staff to the bone and are the scene of abusive behaviour, “violences sexistes et sexuelles”.

Mélenchon has periodic ‘Maoist’ clear-outs of older cadre, though, the author asserts that he is not a megalomaniac who controls everything, an impression one may have got from Thomas Guénolé, La Chute de la Maison Mélenchon : Une machine dictatoriale vue de l’intérieur (2019). Rather he wishes to be free from any constraints, able to do whatever he wishes. In an interview with Slate this is repeated and called “« anarcho-césarisme » : une grande liberté de la base se conjugue à une immense liberté du leader” (anarcho-Ceasarisme, freedom at the grass-roots with a huge freedom of the leader) “The result, as signalled early in the study is a structure with the imprint of a 5th Republic presidential monarchy rather than a self-managed republic (Page 46). Disagreements do exist, but, as he goes onto remark, the “absence of democracy, the absence of pluralism, opacity, informality and organised chaos” do make it an attractive model (Page 96).

At its creation in 2016 LFI claimed 500,000 supporters. Few of them were active on the ground. Of those that were large numbers melted away after the 2017 elections. Le populisme de gauche estimates that the present figure for the number of committed activists involved is about 9,000, although that number is bound to be reinforced by those willing to lend a hand as next year’s Presidential contest approaches.

What kind of people voted for Mélenchon and LFI, which has (including Ensemble which has independent structures), 17 MPs, 5 MEPs (but a low score of 6,3 % in 2019), 25 Regional Councillors, though largely invisible in the 2020 local elections during which it backed “initiatives citoyennes” (citizens’ initiatives lists)? The present study, putting an end to the efforts of the MP for the Bouches-du-Rhône efforts to claim he owned the 19,58 who backed him in 2017, indicates an electorate that is “composite, infidèle et volatile” , heterogeneous, unfaithful and volatile.

Populism.

The concept of populism, the ‘people’ as a political subject against its enemies is discussed through various stabs at laying it out as an ideal-type. It breaks-down, it is argued, as an empirical generalisation covering such disparate phenomena as Narodnik movement, the US People’s Party, Latin America., Trump, Brexiters, European national populists such as Viktor Orbá. Others would say that national populism, which focused on the Nation and its foes, globalisers and immigrants and promotes national sovereignty, is a useful term. As can be, in a general way, the expression, left-populism. This Cervera-Marzal argues has some use, a political current that, in Europe, looked for way between the old far-left, seen as outdated, and social-democracy, considered corrupted, social liberal and having run out of steam. This strain, at least in France, has a “republican” wing, but also evident in forms of ‘red-brown’ cross-overs that emerged in Britain during Brexit, and fed a ‘confusionist’ drift to the right.

How Corbyn fits into this is far from obvious, one point being, as he notes, is that Labour is a mass party with democratic structures independent of any Leader. Membership requires payment, not just “quelques clics” – and enables one to vote on conflicting resolutions and internal office holders, including for opponents of Jeremy Corbyn. Another is the word the ‘people’ in UK left discourse tends to be submerged within the widest definition of the working class, corresponding to the French ‘classes populaires’.

Constructing an ideal-type (which is a way that can indicate differences as well as similarities) of left-populism, runs into a number of further problems despite its utility as shorthand for a left that is wider than Marxist emphasis on the proletariat and the theme of a rebellion against the political system and those that dominate it.

First up, the Spanish Podemos, for example, often said to have emerged in tandem with LFI, has developed more democratic structures beyond ‘virtual’ Net based politics, from, as he puts it, their already self-organised and convivial ‘circles’. It is equally in coalition with the social democratic PSOE. Next Podemos has had is splits, from the break-away of la Izquierda Anticapitalista to Iñigo Errejón, and his allies in Más Madrid. Its ‘charismatic’ leader Pablo Iglesias, who has faced criticism on the Hispanic left for holding his own ‘Court’, left politics this year without the party collapsing. It is hard to imagine LFI continuing after such splits and without Mélenchon. Finally, leaving aside the experience of the Greek Syriza, and the importance of the Portuguese alliance of radical left and social democrats in the  Bloco de Esquerda, it is hard to see any useful generalisations emerging at present about what is, Cervera-Marzal states, a political recipe that no longer pays dividends.

Robert Michels asserted that “Who says organisation, says oligarchy.” Yet what kind of oligarchy is built by La France insoumise and other networked parties – the most famous in France being La République en marche (LRM) of their nemesis Emanuel Macron – limited companies run to mobilise a constituency of on-line sympathisers? This book is an important step not just in analysing La France insoumise but in looking at these, much wider, changes in the nature of politics and political parties.

Le Populisme de gauche. Sociologie de la France insoumise (La Découverte, 2021).

Written by Andrew Coates

December 5, 2021 at 4:33 pm

Jean-Luc Mélenchon Debates Éric Zemmour on BFMV.

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Opinion Polls this week had put a Zemmour Candidacy ahead of Mélenchon.

Last night on BFMT there was a two hour debate between the leader of La France insoumise (LFI) Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right self-proclaimed Presidential candidate Éric Zemmour.

I watched it. Zemmour’s hatred for immigration, that is immigrants, in general and Muslims in particular stood out. The theme of the ‘great replacement’ (grand remplacement) and the end of the French nation was never far from the polemicist’s lips, as was crime, social security fraud, and allegations of a brewing civil war. Islam was the opposite of the country, “aux antipodes de la France”.  C’est une guerre de civilisation qui nous est menée, une guerre de pillages, une guerre de viols, une guerre de meurtres.” (A war of civilization which is being waged against us, a war of looting, a war of rape, a war of murder.) said he. The ‘polemicist’, who is from a Jewish background, generously allowed that possibly some Muslims might be assimilated to the French republic, on the model of his own community’s integration. Those who did not fit in should leave.

To British eyes it seemed extraordinary that this unbridled hatred was given an airing. Fact-checks on some of the wilder claims did not diminish that impression. Experienced in communication and media techniques (having seen him on C-News) Zemmour got away with the ravings of a bigot.

Not one to take this claims lying down Mélenchon called his opponent a racist with court convictions for it, “Vous êtes un raciste, condamné pour ça. » On immigration Mélenchon defended “créolisation”, that is cultural mixing. On the name issue (Zemmour wants children to have French forenames) he rightly said that a French prénom was a name of a French person. The left populist also cited the claim that Couscous was France’s favourite dish – reminding people that not everybody has the British taste for curry.

The LFI leader tried, many times, to get the discussion back to issues that could be rationally, or at least, calmly talked about. His election programme included retirement at 60, blocking the prices of energy and certain food products – as well as increased agricultural ‘sovereignty’ for France – leaving NATO or increasing the minimum wage to 1,400 euros. Taking up some of his favourite themes Mélenchon vaunted France’s maritime role and the potential of space exploration. .

Zemmour attacked Mélenchon for daring to criticise heavy-handed – brutal – policing, for his Trotskyist past, questioned how anybody from a Marxist background could back green energy, and for good measure peppered his speech with attacks on the “obese” welfare state and people living on benefits.

Both figures linked the growth of abstention in French elections to the lack of effective change on offer. Emmanuel Macron, Zemmour said, stifled politics, representing both the liberal right-wing and the liberal-left wing.

Hell, those two hours were dire.

Zemmour, who has still not officially announced his candidacy for President, is eating into Marine Le Pen’s electorate.

Before people smile:

“Eric Zemmour would collect 10% of voting intentions in the first round of the presidential election and Jean-Luc Mélenchon 8% if Xavier Bertrand would be the right-wing candidate and Yannick Jadot the EELV Ecologists) candidate. Same score if Xavier Bertrand and is a candidate and Sandrine Rousseau is committed for the Greens. Eric Zemmour would total 10.5% of the vote and Jean-Luc Mélenchon 7.5% if Valérie Pécresse wears the colours of the right and Yannick Jadot defends EELV. Last scenario: Eric Zemmour is credited with 10.5% of voting intentions and Jean-Luc Mélenchon with 8% in the event that Valérie Pécresse and Sandrine Rousseau are candidates.”

La Dépêche. 23.9.21.

There has been a debate on the French left as to whether it was wise to debate with Zemmour.

Here is a good introduction to Zemmour’s ideology:

Le «zemmourisme», un ultranationalisme intégral.

This is what Britain’s ace reporters are interested in today:

Written by Andrew Coates

September 24, 2021 at 9:16 am

Jean Luc-Mélenchon’s weakened La France insoumise looks for Green friends.

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Fameuse photo

Friday: Jean-Luc Mélenchon shares platform with the Green (EELV)  Mayor of Grenoble Éric Piolle. 

Left populism is fizzling out. France has been one of the best known laboratories for this experiment. At one point even the English language left press  was full of article about La France insoumise and its would-be charismatic leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Dullards who expressed doubts about the patriotic side of the one-time Lambertist Trotskyist and life-long admirer of French President François Mitterrand. were regularly treated to lectures on the deeply held love of France’s revolutionary history by the French left.

Yet accusations of nationalism have dogged the rallying-point, as the controversy over anti-immigration sovereigntists such as Djordje Kuzmanovic (edged out in 2018), indicated. A regional councillor, Andréa Kotarac, went so far as to leave LFI last year to give his support to Marine Le Pen in that year’s European election.

The Catholic patriot and socialist writer Charles  Péguy, once wrote, ” Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique” – Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” In the case of La France insoumise it looks as if neither their mystical vision of uniting the people against the elite (Nous-le peuple, eux-les élites) nor their political hopes of “taking the power” are on course.

Readers of La Chute de la maison Mélenchon  by Thomas Guénolé (2019), will know that the attempt to weld together the people an epoch their leader called l’ére des peuples. have had deep problems over the last couple of years. As the political scientist and former activist, who left LFI in a storm of controversy,  wrote, the “movement” of those who ” se reconnaissent dans la démarche de Jean-Luc Mélenchon”. One cause was the lack of any democratic way of bringing supporters to that recognition other than in agreement to the leading group’s views.

“Démocratie véritable et autogestion dans les paroles, mais pilotage centralisé et autoritaire dans la réalité.”

Guénolé launched his broadside against LFI not only because it claimed to offer genuine self-managed democracy in words, but was centralised and authoritarian in reality. Having been created by the Helmsman and his inner circle, drawn initially from the party-club the Parti de gauche (PG)  (which originated as a faction within the Parti Socialiste) LFI, run as a “dictatorship” it expended people’s energy in false hope. It had become concerned with the interests of an small group, not the people of the left as a whole. It  could not be, he argued, in its present form, the basis for a real “union de la gauche” , toute la gauche”, from  the Communists, the Greens, to the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste and Lutte ouvrière, and open to potential offers from the Socialists. This was the basis, he passionately declared,  that could win elections for the French left.

The crises pictured in La Chute have not been overcome.

After having treated his 2017 Presidential score (first round) of  7 million vote (19,58 %) as his personal property, which anybody else on the left had to accept, if he cared to allow them to agree with him, Mélenchon ended up with 17 seats in the National Assembly (out of 577).

He has since seen his electoral position progressively eroded

LFI sank to 6,3% of the vote in the 2019 European elections,

This year’s poor showing in the local elections set the seal on LFI

Their

lists were for the most part eliminated in the first round or (in their rare presence) had a reduced place in the few union lists (with other forces on the left, or with Greens)  where they were present, LFI have failed to meet their targets.

Après l’échec aux municipales, La France insoumise mise déjà sur 2022

At the end of June this year Manon Le Bretton, head of their internal education department, quit her official post in the latest in a new wave of discontent

La France insoumise ne parvient pas à régler ses tensions internes

Abel Mestre. Le Monde 24th of June 2020.

At the beginning of June, Le Monde obtained an internal memo, signed by some forty executives and activists, denouncing “a way of operating that endangers the future of the movement” .

One of the inner party managers, Charlotte Girard, loyal since the days when the PG was part of the Parti Socialiste, resigned. She stated that inside LFI there was no channel to express disagreements, “ il n’y a pas de moyen de ne pas être d’accord ». 

A few days ago the French media carried stories about an opening by LFI towards other groups on the left and to left-wing Greens.

This bloke was on France Inter:

LFI are still going on about their 2017 vote:  Du côté de LFI, les cadres vantent les sept millions d’électeurs qui ont voté “Insoumis” à la présidentielle de 2017.

France Info today.

By sharing the platform with Jean-Luc Mélenchon , it is to the left wing of the environmentalists that the mayor of Grenoble (Isère) Éric Piolle sends a message….“Let us look at each other in our common fights, (…). In a family, there is diversity: we argue, we bother, but in the end (…) we have the same objectives. Our opponent it is the right, it is Macron, it is the extreme right “ , declared the mayor of Grenoble, on the occasion of the summer university of rebellious France in Châteauneuf-sur-Isère.

The France Info (above) report notes that activists from the green party EELV are considerably more sceptical.

As well they might be!

Le Monde, which did not even bother in this article to add the word “left” to the description of LFI as “populist”, continues the saga up till this week.

Affaiblis, les « insoumis » de Jean-Luc Mélenchon sortent de leur isolement

Après des élections municipales compliquées, La France insoumise profite de son université d’été pour tendre la main à l’aile gauche d’Europe Ecologie-Les Verts.

In the meantime the social democratic wing around the Parti Socialiste, in the shape of former editor of Libêration, Laurent Joffrin, have their own plans to draw in the Greens….