I have a long article in the new issue of Dissent examining the potential future of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France insoumise. When I first thought to do a piece on LFI, not long after the 2017 elections, I was not at all sympathetic to the movement. Mélenchon’s disagreeable character and flirtation with demagogic rhetoric were plain to see, and I was instinctively drawn to the more respectable and not-at-all Eurosceptic Benoît Hamon, whose program was otherwise similar. And in the months after Trump’s victory, the idea that Mélenchon would not explicitly endorse voting against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election was impossible to swallow. Like many Americans—and I’ve talked to people very far to the left who shared this sentiment, people who might otherwise have claimed to see straight through Macron’s “flexicurity” rhetoric—I will admit I had come to see Macron as a sort of stand-in for Hillary Clinton and the kind of socially liberal, economically neoliberal politics of the American Democratic Party. I never bought the line that “Berniebros” refusing to vote for Clinton had handed the American election to Trump, believing that there is no difference between the reactionary far right and the neoliberal center-left. But Mélenchon and his supporters appeared to be saying precisely this, which seemed at best dishonest—allowing them not to sully their hands by supporting the man they knew would win—and at worst incredibly dangerous at a time when it was difficult to be certain Le Pen would not surprise us.
Working on this piece did not convert me into a mélenchoniste, and I retain many of these same criticisms. But at the same time, it forced me to take seriously La France insoumise as a left-wing opposition force (and to put the comparisons to the 2016 US election in brackets for a while). Though I have elsewhere raised issues with the notion of “left-wing populism” on the theoretical level, for example, it did become clear to me that in practice La France insoumise is doing something right in its grassroots campaigns to get marginalized people engaged in the political process. As I mention in the article, they have discovered and appropriated the work of Saul Alinsky, and have begun organizing listening tours in the banlieues to simply talk to people about what’s on their minds. Some might just call this good grassroots politics, some might insist on calling it “populism”—either way, no other left-wing party in France is currently engaging with participatory democracy on this level, though the Socialists used to do it.
This might not do much to alter one’s worries about Mélenchon’s fitness for the presidency (though there is clearly some strategic value in his extreme rhetoric and barely concealed Euroscepticism, particularly if the future of the common currency or the EU itself begins to look even more bleak). But my view—or rather, hope—is increasingly that there is potential for La France insoumise to play a role in rebuilding a re-energized left in France. That is, if it can outlive Mélenchon’s own heavy-handed leadership and move beyond its frequent squabbles with other left movements. It will be unlikely to do this in time for the next presidential election, which in the long run may turn out to be a good thing if it means taking the focus off of another Mélenchon campaign. But look out for what it might be able to pull off at the local level in the municipal elections in 2020.
UPDATE: On the other hand, signs have emerged that LFI’s methods of selecting candidates for the 2019 European elections are not exactly an example of participatory democracy. See more here.
Photo Credit: MathieuMD, Meeting Mélenchon Toulouse – 2017-04-16 – Jean-Luc Mélenchon 02, via Wikimedia Commons,