Gilles Perret has a new documentary out this week based on footage of Jean-Luc Mélenchon during his 2017 presidential campaign. The film, L’insoumis, has been predictably praised to high heavens as a “humanizing” portrait of Mélenchon’s down-to-earth personality by supporters of his movement La France insoumise, and dismissed as “propaganda” by detractors.
Of course, it’s neither of these things. Perret is unmistakably a friend and supporter of Mélenchon, and since the former candidate is in fact a human being, watching an hour and a half of his semi-intimate moments during the campaign trail does to some extent “humanize” him. But as one might expect for any political film of this nature, such a portrait is hardly going to change anyone’s opinion of Mélenchon. If you liked him going into the film, you’ll like him going out; if you didn’t like him before, you won’t like him after.
The two biggest takeaways from the film are that (1) Mélenchon sincerely believed he was going to win the presidency up until the results of the premier tour were announced, and (2) he appears genuinely hurt and enraged by his vilification in the mainstream press. The first point is not trivial—plenty of people believed that Mélenchon was only interested in building a movement so that he could set himself up in the comfortable position as the leader of a very vocal but ultimately powerless opposition. I myself have at times been tempted by this view, but I must admit that seeing him repeatedly reject his team’s assurances that he had failed to reach the second round as the results were coming in last April, he seemed genuinely dismayed. Of course, his personal belief in the viability of his campaign does not completely invalidate the critique that La France insoumise cared more about campaigning than governing (although what politician in campaign mode does not?), but at least for JLM himself, one would have to make the case that this was operating at some deeper psychological level.
I was most surprised, though, to see that he actually seems to care about the way he is treated in the press. I would estimate that at least a third of the film overall consists of him and his team scouring the daily papers for coverage of his campaign, preparation for television appearances, or invectives against journalists who wished him and his movement ill. My impression had been that his adversarial relations with the press were part of a more calculated strategy. La France insoumise has recently rediscovered the work of the American community organizer Saul Alinsky, and I had assumed that Mélenchon had been channeling what Alinsky told a Playboy interviewer in 1972 about how he builds his movement:
The first and most important thing you can do to win this acceptance is to bait the power structure into publicly attacking you. In Back of the Yards [a Chicago slum neighborhood], when I was first establishing my credentials, I deliberately maneuvered to provoke criticism. I made outrageous statements to the press, I attacked every civic and business leader I could think of, and I goaded the establishment to strike back. The Chicago Tribune, one of the most right-wing rags in the country at the time, branded me a subversive menace and spokesmen for the meat packers denounced me as a dangerous enemy of law and order. Now, these were the same forces that were screwing the average Joe in Back of the Yards, and the minute he saw those attacks he said, “That guy Alinsky must be all right if he can get those bastards that pissed off; he must have something or they wouldn’t be so worried.” So I used what I call psychological jujitsu on the establishment, and it provided me with my credentials, my birth certificate, in all the communities I ever organized.
I am sure Mélenchon has something of this attitude in mind, but I walked away from L’insoumis feeling like it is giving him too much credit to read this into his attacks on journalists like Léa Salamé. His rage is perhaps understandable at the “human” level of a film like this, but makes little sense politically, since his clashes with the press do a lot to legitimize him for many of his supporters (not to mention the fact that despite the harsh rhetoric against him one often finds in the press, La France insoumise is extremely well represented in today’s French media. The 17 deputies of the movement in the National Assembly seem to be on TV more than the more the 300+ marcheurs). So if the first major point left me feeling a bit warmer towards the candidate of La France insoumise, this second one had the opposite effect.
The other standout moment of the film was Mélenchon’s visit to the “Plan B” Summit in Rome (a reference to the confrontational EU policy he has championed). There, we discover not only that he speaks impeccably good Spanish, but that he also feels a deep affinity with Southern Europe in an aesthetic or spiritual sense. He loves the Mediterranean atmosphere, he muses to the camera, whereas l’Europe du nord, ça me parle pas.
Photo credit: Screenshot, FilmsActu, “L’INSOUMIS Bande Annonce”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8UgBIzdkc0