Mélenchon and the Quest for Hegemony

17 May 2022

A word with a long history in leftist movements has recently resurfaced in French political discourse: “hegemony.” It has been primarily used in connection with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who, thanks to a convincing third-place finish in the first round of the presidential election, completely crushed his rivals on the left (and nearly qualified for the runoff). The question of hegemony has notably been discussed in relation to the negotiations held between Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise (Unbowed France or LFI), and the other leftist parties to form an electoral pact for the June legislative elections. These talks resulted in the formation, on May 1, of the alliance known as the Nouvelle Union Populaire écologiste et sociale (New People’s Ecologist and Social Union or NUPES).

Thus Julien Bayou of Europe Écologie-Les Verts (Europe Ecology-the Greens, or EELV), emphasized that any new alliance could not be based on a “hegemonic intent” on the part of Mélenchon. Adrien Quatennens, a leading figure in Mélenchon’s party, insisted that his party was not demanding a “hegemonic position” in an alliance. Meanwhile, now that the NUPES alliance has become a credible threat, President Emmanuel Macron has used the same language to attack it. He recently observed that the “far left”—in other words, LFI—“had won the Gramscian struggle against the political forces” that sought an alliance with it. The “Gramscian struggle” to which Macron was referring was clearly the struggle for political and cultural hegemony, the signature concept of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker.

What is going on here? Though many of the participants denied it, the NUPES alliance, as well as LFI’s strong electoral showing, do suggest that Mélenchon has achieved hegemony over a significant political constituency. This hegemony takes several forms.

First, this hegemony is evident in the fact LFI is running significantly more candidates in the legislative elections than its three major partners—EELV, the Socialist Party (the PS) and the French Communist Party (the PCF). Of 577 seats, 100 have been promised to EELV, 70 to the PS, and 50 to the PCF. Of these, the EELV has a chance to win around 30 seats, the PS between 25 and 30, and the PCF about 18 (including seats currently held). The lion’s share of the remaining candidates—some 350—will belong to LFI. Of course, the key question is how many seats NUPES’ partners will each win. Yet at least for now, LFI has unquestionably extended its hegemony over the left simply by running the most candidates and having a say in how many the other parties can run.

Second, hegemony refers to a long-term political strategy that Mélenchon has theorized and pursued. He has accepted the view that contemporary French society has outgrown the left-right divide—a position that he shares, incidentally, with the leaders of France’s two other major political parties, Macron (of Renaissance) and Marine Le Pen (of the Rassemblement National or RN). Mélenchon believes that thanks to neoliberalism and globalization, the main fault line in French society lies between the “people” and the “elite” or “oligarchy.” This position has been deeply influenced by the thought of the political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, notably in their classic work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, as well as in several recent books by Mouffe on left populism. The idea, in short, is that the LFI must establish itself as the most recognizable force embodying the aspirations of ordinary people against a wealthy, politically powerful, and out-of-touch elite. This explains its emphasis on the virtues of “non-submission” (insoumission) and the Saul Alinsky-inspired tactics it has cultivated (as described in Jacob Hamburger’s excellent article for Dissent). It also accounts for LFI’s hostility to the RN, which it sees as a leading competitor for hegemony over the populist movement. In short, hegemony describes the LFI’s effort to prioritize a new political divide and to lay claim to being the main representative of one side of this divide—the people.

One effect of this strategy—and another meaning of hegemony—is the imperative of breaking with “social democracy”—a term that refers to the politics of the Socialist Party (PS). Mélenchon broke dramatically with the PS years ago. One of the most striking developments in the creation of the NUPES alliance was not simply that LFI struck a deal with the PS—despite considerable bad blood between them—but that, in the process, it has bolstered the position of socialists who have expressed frustration with their party’s recent political line. François Hollande’s disastrous presidency (2012-2017), during which he managed to disappoint many socialists while failing to gain much credibility with the right, has a lot to do with the PS’s virtual annihilation in the recent presidential election. While the PS still admits that it has many issues with the LFI, its leadership, in joining NUPES, has at least partially accepted some of Mélenchon’s critique. At the NUPES’ first conference, Olivier Faure, the PS leader, reminded his new allies that his party had for the most part opposed the El Khomri law, a measure adopted during Hollande’s tenure that sought to deregulate the labor market and which is loathed by many on the left. Faure also said that it was time for socialists to vote for what they actually believe, rather than simply for what is deemed possible. A break with PS-style social reformism–and perhaps a purge of the PS itself—is thus another way in which Mélenchon has asserted his hegemony.

A further consequence of hegemony strategy is the imperative of taking vanguard positions on an array of “populist” issues. Thus even as the LRI continues to emphasize goals that fit comfortably within the socialist tradition—notably retirement at age 60—it has also sought to take the lead on environmental issues. Indeed, one might argue that, in the 2022 races, the LFI also established hegemony over the EELV, the main green party. The LFI has also sought to be at the forefront of various cultural issues, such as the #metoo movement and antiracism.

Finally, hegemony reflects Mélenchon’s belief in the “primacy of the political” (to use a theoretical phrase, not one that Mélenchon himself uses). Though Mélenchon belongs to the socialist tradition and cares deeply about inequality and injustice, he believes that many of these problems ultimately stem from disempowerment. If you want justice and social equality, he contends, power must come first. Hence his strong identification with Jacobinism and his reverence for Robespierre. As these historical reference points suggest, Mélenchon sees no contradiction between advocating the end of the “monarchical” Fifth Republic and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy that would exercise power inflexibly in the people’s name. It is for this reason, moreover, that Mélenchon is skeptical of the anti-statist, pro-civil society tradition known as the Second Left, which has become so influential in the PS in recent decades. Indeed, in Mélenchon’s philosophy, political power functions as a meta-value—the bedrock principle upon which all others rest. The goal of a genuinely populist politics, he believes, is to provide all people with the opportunity to become masters of their fate.

Nothing guarantees that Mélenchon’s hegemonic strategy will succeed. Some analysts have predicted that NUPES is unlikely to get much more than 100 seats—significantly lower than a majority. Moreover, it is unclear whether NUPES will survive the parliamentary elections themselves. On key issues—the retirement age, the European Union, nuclear energy—its constituent members are significantly at odds with one another. Nor is it clear what incentives, beyond elections, the other parties have to accept LFI’s hegemony. Perhaps his greatest problem is not whether he will win, but how he would govern in the off chance that he does win: what is the likelihood, were he to find himself on the threshold of power, that he would be more successful, say, than Podemos (in Spain) or Syriza (in Greece)?

In any case, Mélenchon has, on the market for leftwing and radical opinion, successfully outbid his competitors. At least for now, he has imposed his line on the historic left as the new idiom for contestation. Whatever its electoral success, this will contribute to a reconfiguration of French politics that is already well underway.



Attribution: Creative Commons © European Communities, 2016

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