Mélenchon: “Federate the people!”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon contains multitudes. After the Notre-Dame fire, he was among the most eloquent of commentators, intimately familiar with the history of the cathedral. But his familiarity with the vast panorama of French history did not prevent him from ludicrously comparing Éric Drouet, one of the leaders of the leaderless Gilets Jaunes, to Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould, le bon citoyen who recognized the king in flight from the Revolution and thus precipitated his arrest at Varennes.
Today Mélenchon appears in the pages of Libération in a spirited dialogue with editor Laurent Joffrin. He denies that he has transformed La France Insoumise into a cult of personality with himself at the center. He recognizes that the fragmentation of the Left has reduced it to impotence, but there is no hope, he says, of overcoming that fragmentation through a coalition of parties, because the parties and the media insist that such a coalition must place a party of the center-left at its center.
Mélenchon, for his part, thinks the center-left has discredited itself. He cites the example of the German SPD and its alliance with the center-right. Left unsaid is the defection of much of the French center-left to Macron’s En Marche. Hence the only way forward, in Mélenchon’s mind, is what he calls a “federation of the people,” outside the parties, even though the representatives of the Left in the Assembly vote together “90% of the time.” Yet when they speak to the press, they highlight only disagreement. Nevertheless, the people can be “federated,” but only if they rally around his own party’s program, “Avenir en commun.”
“Avenir en commun” proposes two goals: to do away with the planet-killing philosophy of “productivism” in the name of “ecology,” and to “leave the treaties” (sortir des traités) establishing the legal framework of the European Union, which “prevent us from achieving our goals.” Joffrin tries in vain to elicit from Mélenchon some clarity about the meaning of this formula, sortir des traités. Does it mean leaving the European Union, as the verb sortir seems to imply? Mélenchon bristles. “Brexit means Brexit,” says Theresa May, but sortir does not mean leave, according to Mélenchon.
Does it mean “reform the treaties?” Joffrin asks. Again Mélenchon bristles. “Reform” lacks the virile sense of decisive action he wishes to impart. It smacks of “revisionism” and Hollandisme and third-way-ism and all those capitalist-roadisms that have landed the left in its current predicament.
So no, this is not it. Sortir means doing away with troublesome rules that confine member states within their “productivist” straitjackets. But you don’t mean to abandon the market economy? Joffrin inquires in horror. No, “we are for a mixed economy,” Mélenchon replies, without explaining how that differs from what France has now or specifying what sort of mixture he has in mind of what features of “productivism” can safely be dispensed with. “We denounce the generalized commodification imposed by the European treaties. We prefer to invoke the general interest, collective action.” Whether this collective action involves other member states is left unclear. Mélenchon will at once sortir des traités while revising them on the basis of a “general” interest that no other French left-wing party, let alone any other member state, recognizes. Frexit does not mean Frexit, sortir does not mean sortir, and collective action is collective in principle only.
In Mélenchon’s view, this vanguardism is imposed by the backward state of the rest of the Left. “Some remain productivist or nuclearist, while others continue their ubiquitous praise of the market. … We must come together, but in service of a common task: to federate the people, unify its demands, and transform them into a program compatible with the ecological and social imperative.”
Vaste programme! as the General used to say. When Joffrin says that critics accuse Mélenchon of conducting a politics of emotion rather than reason, Mélenchon replies, correctly, that emotion has always been a part of politics. But Mélenchon seems to be straining to take words that have lost their former resonance (does “Fédérer le peuple!” more readily call to mind le mur des Fédérés or la République fédérale?) and inject into them shots of new emotion with more contemporary buzzwords such as productiviste or écologie. It’s interesting to watch him work his rhetorical magic, even if none of his followers can match his skill. But for precisely that reason his protestations that he has not created a cult of personality fall flat. Mélenchon is the only thing that links more prosaic politicians such as François Ruffin and Alexis Corbière to the long left tradition he so effortlessly evokes. But he is the end of the line, not the beginning.