Aló Presidente? Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s South American Revolutionary

There is a specter that is not haunting Europe—not even France, that homeland of European revolution: the specter of communism. The Parti communiste français (PCF), born in 1920 from the split in international socialism provoked by the Bolshevik Revolution, has been in steady decline for three decades. The party that in the postwar years could reliably count on the support of a quarter of France’s electorate could still muster 15% in the 1981 presidential election. By 1988, however, it was down to 6.7%, followed by a brief uptick to 8.7% in 1995 before the party began its death throws: 3.4% in 2002 and, in 2007, a paltry 1.9%. But during these campaigns, the PCF at least maintained a presence by running a candidate. In 2012, for the first time since 1974, there will be no PCF candidate on the presidential ballot. Instead, the party has opted to support the candidacy of the dissident socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is heading up a coalition of leftist movements dubbed the Front de Gauche.

Mélenchon has long had a soft spot for the PCF. He is not, however, a communist. You can see this from his political style. He is one of the more original and entertaining characters in the current crop of French politicians. He is pugnacious, lacing his eloquent populism with free-flowing insults against the media, the rich, and the right. He has a mischievous sense of humor, and, compared to the rather low bar set by Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, a keen mind. Traits like these hardly make him a successor to such colorless PCF stand-bearers as André Lajoinie, Robert Hue, or Marie-Georges Buffet.

But Mélenchon’s divergence from communism is not only about style. He also belongs to a very different political tradition—that distinctly French hybrid of socialism and republicanism, forged in the nineteenth-century, with Jean Jaurès as its martyred patron saint. What makes Mélenchon’s variation on this tradition a symptom of the times is that he has fashioned it into an ideological warhorse for attacking what he sees as the greatest threats facing France, Europe, and the world: neoliberalism and globalized capitalism. He is almost as unsparing in his criticism of “social democrats,” the term of contempt he uses to refer to neoliberalism’s quislings on the center left.

Lest he be accused of being too French, Mélenchon has infused his own form of republican socialism with insights from the non-Western world, particularly South America. He embraces a “citizens’ revolution” modeled on social movements in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Along with the Greens’ Eva Joly, the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (the New Anti-Capitalist Party, or NPA), and a few left-wingers who remain within the socialist party’s fold (like Arnaud Montebourg), Mélenchon represents one shade of the increasingly rich palette of the “left of the left,” which is united by its search for a progressive alternative to neoliberal globalization.

In a career that has been mostly devoted to politics, Mélenchon has frequently swung back and forth between the left’s margins and mainstream. Born in Morocco in 1951, he was raised in the Jura, in eastern France. His initiation into politics occurred—like many of his generation—in May 1968, when he participated in the student movement while still in high school in his hometown of Lons-le-Saulnier. While attending university in nearby Besançon, he joined the Organisation communiste internationaliste (Internationalist Communist Organization, or OCI), a shadowy Trotskyist group adhered to by a number of French political figures who have since gone mainstream (most prominently, Lionel Jospin, the former socialist leader and Prime Minister). By 1977, Mélenchon had left the OCI and joined the Socialist Party (PS), a move that soon propelled him into electoral politics, first as a local official in the Jura, then as a member of the French senate.

In the PS, much of his efforts went to organizing a courant—the occasionally ideological but often personality-driven caucuses into which the PS’s membership is organized—of a distinctively leftist bent. This was presumably a reaction to the ideological confusion in which the left found itself in the 1980s, when France’s socialist government, under President François Mitterrand (of whom Mélenchon remained a strong supporter), proved incapable of achieving a “rupture with capitalism” and, faced with mass unemployment, deindustrialization, and stiffening international competition, resigned itself to working within the free market paradigm. Mélenchon’s goal has consistently been to push back against the forces that were moving the PS in a centrist direction. In 1988, he cofounded a courant called La Gauche socialiste (The Socialist Left) to protest then Prime Minister Michel Rocard’s “opening” of his government to centrist politicians. La Gauche socialiste gave way to in 2002 to a new courant called Le Nouveau monde (The New World).

But the critical turning point occurred when the PS came out in favor of the European Constitutional Treaty that was submitted to French voters in a referendum in 2005. Seeing the EU as a Trojan horse for neoliberalism, Mélenchon bucked party discipline and campaigned alongside the PCF in favor of a “no” vote—a choice for which he felt vindicated when French voters ultimately rejected the treaty by 55%-45%. While he remained in the PS, Mélenchon begin to realize he had more in common with the emerging anti-globalization left than with the PS’s timid and quarreling chieftains. In 2008, taking a page from the playbook of the German politician Oskar Lafontaine, who seceded from the Social Democrats (whom he, too, accused of being excessively accommodating of neoliberalism) to form a party pithily called Die Linke (“The Left), Mélenchon left the PS in 2008 and created his own anti-EU, anti-liberal party, the Parti de gauche—the Party of the Left (or PG).

To get a sense of what Mélenchon stands for, I took a look at his recent electoral manifesto, Qu’ils s’en aillent tous! (Flammarion, 2010). The first thing that struck me was the language. He writes in the popular (or is it faux popular?) idiom of a Parisian cab driver or the guy drinking a ballon de rouge at the local café. It’s the man-of-the-people style that was popularized by newspapers like the Père Duchesne during the French Revolution, and, in a more literary vein, by the modernist writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Discussing the confusion of the modern world, for instance,  Mélenchon writes (in my very loose translation): “Left, right, up, down, back, front, everything’s mixed up! So the socialists come to power. It looks like right and left have ceased to exist. Next, you can’t tell up from down: the powerful start talking like street thugs, showing off their bling like social climbers. Back and front, too, have vanished, like some honky-tonk trick. The European Constitution: huh, I thought that was behind us; didn’t the ‘no’s’ win? Sorry, suckers, it’s back! They just cut-and-pasted the old text to make it deliberately unreadable, as the original author, Mister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, freely admits!”

This style is ideally suited to express, in unsparing terms, Mélenchon’s moral indignation at the injustices and inequalities of the contemporary, globalized world. His book’s title, Qu’ils s’en aillent tous! might be translated simply as “Get Lost!” Mélenchon’s got a hit list of people he’d happily kick out of France. CEOs and traders whose bonuses alone are equivalent to several thousand times the minimum wage. Investors who hide their money in off-shore accounts. Filthy rich soccer players who were raised social services but have the nerve to complain about high taxes. Producers of moronic reality-based TV shows. English-speaking Eurocrats.

But “Qu’ils s’en aillent tous!” is also all a translation of “Que se vayan todos!,” the slogan of the riots that rocked Argentina in December 2001. As Naomi Klein writes, “What made Argentina’s 2001-02 uprising unique was that it wasn’t directed at a particular political party or even at corruption in the abstract. The target was the dominant economic model: this was the first national revolt against contemporary deregulated capitalism.” And that—a “national revolt against contemporary deregulated capitalism”—is really what Mélenchon is all about. To this end, he advocates a “citizens’ revolution,” a term that he borrows from Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, but which he also associates with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. In Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, Mélenchon believes, citizens rose up to challenge the neoliberal policies that were tearing apart the social fabric and depriving the nation of sovereignty over its own affairs. Yet these movements were, ultimately, political. They used the ballot box and democracy to reign in the arbitrary power of economic elites at home and abroad. This is Mélenchon’s dream for France: a civic uprising that would bring an end to the trade agreements and European treaties that politicians, with corporate backing, are forcing down the people’s throats. Emancipation from neoliberalism requires, in short, a democratic renaissance. The ghost of Jean Jaurès smiles.

American progressives talk a lot these days about the extreme levels of income inequality in our own society, often contrasting the US unfavorably to Europe. But Mélenchon reminds us that similar disparities have also arisen in France. Between 2004 and 2007, he asserts, 33% of income gains went to France’s wealthiest 10%. He lists the salaries of a number of French CEOS, presenting their income as a function of the French minimum wage, or SMIC—while also pointing out that many of those who are the most lavishly rewarded have been laying off employees. He claims, for instance, that Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault-Nissan made 770 times the SMIC over the past year (or €9.24 billion), even though his company has fired 6000 employees since 2008. The answer? Mélenchon writes: “We must not be afraid to take. And to take a lot from those on the top.” Yet, once again, he’s not a communist. He wants to tax capital and, intriguingly, to make it illegal for anyone working for a company to earn more than twenty times the salary of its lowest-paid employee. This will preserve incentives, he believes, while forcing management to concern itself with the well-being of its employees, and not just of its stockholders. Mélenchon’s idea is, moreover, an interesting indicator of what counts as fairness in our current economic predicament.

As a fervent republican, Mélenchon remains a nationalist—not because he wants to defend the French race, but because he believes the nation is the only level at which popular sovereignty can truly function. To have a citizens’ revolution, citizens need a nation. Indeed, Mélenchon believes that nationalism, regionalism, and other forms of “identity politics” that have plagued post-Cold War Europe are the result of the dwindling of national identity caused by the expansion of free-market policies.

Mélenchon is particularly interesting—and outrageous—on Belgium. Belgium, he claims, is an ersatz nation, created only because the British wanted to cut France off from a few strategic North Sea ports. It’s thus not surprising that the tension between Belgium’s two communities, the Walloons and the Flemish, has made the country effectively ungovernable. Consequently, Mélenchon very seriously proposes that France consider annexing Wallonia, should its inhabitants desire it. Wouldn’t this be seen as a serious revision of long-standing borders, of the kind that have created so much instability in Europe’s past? Big deal, says Mélenchon. The same could have been said of German unification. France, he believes, has to take the initiative—and not wait for “zombies like the Belgian Christian Democrat [Herman] Van Rompuy and the Labor baroness [Lady Catherine] Ashton, gutless wonders of the European Union propped up by American power.”

French republicans like to model themselves on men like Léon Gambetta or Jules Ferry. Some will occasionally express admiration for Robespierre. Mélenchon prefers Saint-Just—the French Revolution’s boy wonder, a ruthless member of the Committee of Public Safety who, after the Terror was overthrown, was guillotined at the ripe old age of 26. Mélenchon’s original contribution to French politics is the peculiar way he connects 1794 to 2012, mobilizing the republican traditions of nationalism, egalitarianism, and civic-mindedness against distinctly contemporary ills—the aristocracy of finance and the tyranny of neoliberalism.


4 responses to “Aló Presidente? Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s South American Revolutionary

  1. Another clear analysis of French politics. Although I do not approve of his style , which really looks like “bistrot” conversations, Mr Mélanchon’s analysis of free-trade extremism is quite relevant, and getting more relevant with the current debt crisis. I do not approve either of the chauvinistic innuendos, which look like a competition with far-right activists to get popular votes.
    Your reference to Naomi Klein is the key point of your article, for me. Her books are deprived of the above-mentioned excesses. In “Disaster Capitalism” she hints at South America cooperatives as one way out of full-blown Milton Friedman addiction. Her analysis of how each crisis prompts more privatization policies on is strickingly accurate. What is at stake is how to dramatically curb the clout of the corporate lobbies.
    This is what I try to put forward with my three-tier economic system proposal… which cannot satisfy totalitarianism of any kind.Of course this is unlikely to be heard…
    The glitch with French politics and also American ones, is the stress put on the personality and style of the candidate rather than on her or his ideas…

    • M. Masson: Thank you as always for your passionate and relentlessly consistent remarks. Politically, I agree that the personality of a candidate should not matter. However, I do think personality can matter at times (and not always in a bad way). And at times it’s simply intriguing, particularly when personality matches up in interesting ways with political choices. Like Chevènement in his day, there’s something about Mélenchon’s macho, tough-talking republicanism that belongs to a very specific French tradition (I think)—sort of a Gambetta or an Émile Combes…
      Also, what interests me is the way that there is an entire sector of the French left that is now almost completely defined by (for want of a better term) its “anti-libéralisme.” I’m interested in the different variations or “flavors” of this. EELV is environmental and “gauchiste.” Mélenchon’s is republican and “citoyen.” The NPA has a still different approach, as does, from within the confines of the PS, Arnaud Montebourg (about whose concept of “démondialisation” I hope to write soon). There is in short a quite vibrant and fairly stimulating conversation going on about different ways of challenging neoliberalism.
      Do you have a preference among these choices? Is there a political or social movement that you think represents the best alternatives? (or is this a question mal posée?). Besides Naomi Klein, do you think there are particular books or authors or analyses that best express these alternatives (I know that you’re very interested in the contemporary relevance of the Programme du Conseil National de la Résistance…[the social and political agenda of the French Resistance of 1944]).
      And can you give us a link to your three-tiered proposal?
      Thank you again!

  2. I have no clear-cut preference for all those candidates.I am a member of a small political group called “Gauche Alternative”, which, as a group, is a member of Fase ( Fédération pour une Alternative Economique) . This party has recently decided to be a part of the “Front de Gauche”. Their dream: to unify all those splinters. At the same time, as Gauche Alternative does not ban membership in other groups, I have links with a would-be “décroissance” candidate called Clément Wittmann. I know him personnally and we sometimes talk about alternatives to free trade extremism and also about the limits to growth.
    As I am also connected with people “trying to enhance Man and Society”, a philosophical group that shares many ideals of people like some of the Founding Fathers, I keep tryng to find solutions linking all this.Building a new temple( like the one in Jerusalem): when it collapsed, it was built again and again. Currently this is what is happening in our societies.Only I mean to keep focused on toleration and peaceful ways. Our welfare state, as well as our environment are being jeopardized by greed and overproduction. Demography is another taboo subject which must be taken into account..
    Clément Wittmann is most unlikely to become a major candidate but he has a message to convey, and I agree with the main points.
    What I noticed is widely shared agreement among all those groups to try to find alternatives to free trade extremism. Personnally I find it amazing to be dubbed as an “extremist” when I look around me.The trouble is very few parties or people come around with solutions which could be enacted. This why I eventually pondered about this and came up with the following idea:
    As it is written in French, I sum up One third of people could choose to work for state-run companies or “services”( education, hospitals, police, army…) another third in private companies ( preferably not big corporations… because their interests and habits are a challenge for alternatives) and cooperatives, real ones, not the big bogus ones we sometimes have here . This is the meeting point with Naomi Klein or JP Mélanchon. Without a clear-cut divide, what happened with the CNR program will happen again. Then there must be environmental rules to cope with climate change for instance. I think this is feasible, just a question of balance and education, because all this exists sometimes on a small scale. The CNR program had been endorsed by political parties from the right to the communists. Why cannot this become possible again?
    When I happen to speak about this to audiences people sometimes say I am a day- dreamer, sometimes that I am a dangerous extremist,and sometimes I get somthing like “How come nobody had thought of this prior to you”. I like this.Sometimes people say it is not complicated enough. French people like enormous analysis books. Yet this is based on various ideologies: from Adam Smith, to Karl Marx and Proudhon. Is it useful to quote all this? Just “common sense” as Tom Paine would have had it.
    Our country is rich in some realms and we can try to relocate some activities.
    All this is not a fianl step: just a way to try to get out of the way of Milton Friedmann’s addicts.
    I also agree with Hervé kempf stances. See “Reporterre”, his blog.

  3. Pingback: Crise de la Dette | Le Triptyque Economique

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