I have a short piece out in Dissent exploring the implications of the gilets jaunes movement for La France insoumise and left populism in general. Part of my motivation to write this was an observation that the composition of the movement seemed to track quite neatly the theoretical claims of left-populist theory, while at the same time some of the celebration of the protests by leftists in the US and abroad seemed entirely premature. In other words, I found it strange to declare victory for the populist left in France when it was far from clear that La France insoumise, France’s left-populist party, had or would made any inroads towards capitalizing on the gilets jaunes phenomenon.
One completely counterfactual pet theory of mine is that François Ruffin might have emerged as a bona fide champion of the gilets jaunes had he decided not to throw his lot in with La France insoumise and run for the Assemblée Nationale in 2017. Unlike Mélenchon, Ruffin has an authentic claim to come from provincial France, and continues to run his Amiens-based newspaper Fakir while in parliament. He is a natural shooting the breeze with gilets jaunes at roundabouts in a way few other politicians can match. And though unmistakably a leftist, he is adept at “crossing the aisle”: his proposals for psychiatric facility and unemployment reform have gained support from right and center parties in parliament, and he speaks in a vocabulary that does not alienate unaligned voters. Had he played his cards right, he may have been well-positioned to become a leader of the gilets jaunes in a similar way as he did with Nuit Debout—he might have even run a presidential campaign along the lines of Coluche. But if Ruffin has even ever had any such ambitions, the alliance with Mélenchon may have taken some of the winds out of his sails, making him look more like just another politician running with a party that increasingly looks like just another party.
All of this is perhaps still possible, but of course completely speculative. The prospects of a left-populist resurgence in France are in all likelihood quite low. But if there’s anything the gilets jaunes have taught me, it is to be prepared for surprises.
Photo Credit: Thierry80, François Ruffin répondant à un journaliste à Longuea, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.