PARIS — Earlier this month, I joined the estimated 130,000 Frenchmen who answered the call of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the very-far-left presidential candidate, to stage a “March for the Sixth Republic” from the Bastille to the Place de la République in Paris. Among other radical positions, Mélenchon argues that the Fifth Republic, which was declared by Charles De Gaulle in 1958 and enshrined a monarchical presidency, has reached the end of its useful life and that it’s time for a new, more democratic, more egalitarian France. Mélenchon is a left-wing populist who compares himself to Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Mélenchon speaks to the widespread desire of voters on the left to rewrite the orthodox rules of politics. These voters are the other side — the side we have tended to overlook — of the polarization of politics across the West.
Mélenchon, 65, spent his career as a Socialist Party backbencher until 2008, when he bolted to form his own Left Party. In 2012, he ran for president and captured a respectable 11 percent of the vote. In that election, the Socialist François Hollande defeated right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. But Mélenchon viewed Hollande as the Tweedledum to Sarkozy’s Tweedledee — an apostle of globalism, neoliberalism, and financial austerity, and a puppet of the “Eurocrats” who “dream” of locking “the people in an open-air prison,” as he recently put it in his very pungent (and long-winded) weekly blog post. In February 2016, long before any other candidate had declared him or herself, Mélenchon announced that he would run once again, now as the standard-bearer of another self-created party, La France Insoumise (France Standing Tall, more or less).
Mélenchon has no real chance of becoming president and is unlikely to finish higher than fourth in the first round of the upcoming presidential elections. He may well, however, come out ahead of Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate. That would constitute an immense moral victory for Mélenchon and his votaries, and an absolute calamity for the Socialists, who, like traditional center-left parties all over Europe, suddenly find themselves in free fall. Earlier this week, Hamon implored Mélenchon — and not for the first time — to withdraw his candidacy in order to create a united left front. Mélenchon responded by telling a crowd of 5,000 supporters that “It is to you that I bound myself. I will negotiate nothing with anyone.”
I asked everyone I met at the march what was wrong with Hamon, who, after all, represents the left wing of France’s institutional left party. The first person I asked, Daniel Monnet, who, as it turned out, was running for parliament on Mélenchon’s list in the Haute-Marne district in the northeast, said that the problem wasn’t Hamon’s program, but his party. “The Socialist Party has betrayed us,” he said, “and betrayed working people. Despite all his promises, Hollande accomplished only one progressive thing during his tenure — “marriage for all,” or gay marriage.
It’s absolutely true that Hollande has governed as a centrist, pleasing neither left nor right. He instituted budget cuts to reduce France’s deficit, offering little resistance to the German-led austerity caucus in the European Union. Worse still, if that’s possible, he continued Sarkozy’s campaign to liberalize French labor rules, passing — in the face of mass protests — an employment law that allows individual companies to bypass such key rules as the 35-hour workweek. Mélenchon, by contrast, has called for massive new government spending to stimulate the economy and a “relocalization of production” enabled by a new regime of protectionism. He’s vowed to renegotiate France’s relationship with the EU — or leave. He would establish workers’ committees at the heart of big companies with the power to veto the boss’s decisions to close factories, lay off workers, or move capital abroad.
As a young man, Mélenchon was a Trotskyist, but he joined the Socialists rather than enlist in a Communist Party that would become increasingly marginal after the 1970s. He rose through the ranks of the party in Essonne, a department southwest of Paris, ultimately serving as a junior minister under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002. But having grown up in Morocco, attended a regional university, and worked as a teacher, Mélenchon was never fully comfortable in the party’s intensely elitist culture, any more than he was with its mainstream social democratic principles.
Mélenchon now enjoys the support, albeit grudging, of the Communist Party, which views him as a reckless individualist rather than a disciplined cadre. The party’s red flag waved all along the route of the march. People also carried signs that read (in French) “Share the Wealth” and “Democracy in the Workplace,” though also “Death With Dignity” and “No More Stop and Frisk.”
One of the compelling features of Mélenchonism is that it fuses the most intensely nostalgic elements of the French left with the most avant-garde. For the young people in the crowd — and there were a great many — Mélenchon was the ardent “ecologist” who would replace nuclear facilities with wind farms and solar batteries. For the oldsters, he’s the sworn enemy of capitalists and the moneyed power. Mélenchon also defends the rights of immigrants and refugees, a brave position given the profound anger at both that has driven French politics to the right. However, he has played to nativist sentiment by complaining that the “posted workers” sent to France from low-wage EU countries “took the bread out of French workers’ mouths.” No one I talked to at the march raised Mélenchon’s defense of immigrants as a reason for supporting him. In his speech the candidate steered clear of this supremely neuralgic question.
For the French left, the backward look is far more enthralling than the forward gaze; the past is where hope lies. The speakers who appeared on the stage before Mélenchon read a poem Victor Hugo had written to celebrate the doomed Paris Commune of 1871, two works of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a passage from Albert Camus on the imperative to resist fascism, and a fragment of Jean-Paul Sartre: “There is no human nature; man is what he does.” Gerard Miller, a psychoanalyst who had made a documentary on Mélenchon, urged the crowd not to “fall into the trap of ‘How much does it cost?’” Rather, “at the outset you must demand what is desirable.” The crowd roared, “Resistance! Resistance!”
And then Mélenchon, a stocky man with a red tie — always red — showing through his rather chic open-necked black sweater, took the stage. Mélenchon is, as the French say, a “tribune” — an orator who knows how to stir the masses. The melodramatic vocabulary of the Revolution, the Commune, and the anti-fascist struggle of the 20th century issues from him as fluently as Elizabethan English from a gifted Shakespearean actor. “Listen to the sound that rises from our ranks,” he cried to the great throng. “This sound has no name, like the sound of the wind in the leaves, like that of the rain on the pavement. The sound has no name, but it is a sign — that of the people when it arises in its history.” It might sound like malarkey to a nonbeliever; to this crowd it was nectar.
Mélenchon raged against “a presidential monarchy” — the semi-regal, unaccountable French head of state — “and its close collusion with the kingpins of finance who subjugate and dominate.” He insisted that the Socialist Hollande, like his right-wing predecessor Sarkozy, had surrendered French sovereignty to a European Union where “all power is given to a wholly independent central bank whose sole mission is the protection of rent” — a term straight out of Das Kapital. Mélenchon also said that workers must exercise greater control over “the means of production.” For all of Mélenchon’s facility with social media and his conversion to the cause of environmentalism, he seemed to be summoning his followers to join him in a glorious crusade to the 19th century.
The center-left parties of Europe, which for decades dominated both its politics and political culture, have lost their way. In the Dutch elections last month, the Labour Party finished seventh, plummeting from 38 seats in Parliament to nine. The British Labour Party has been rendered almost nonfunctional by splits within its ranks provoked by hard-left party leader Jeremy Corbyn. France’s Socialist Party still enjoys a near-majority in the National Assembly and holds many of the country’s most important mayoralties, but Hollande has suffered from record unpopularity almost throughout his tenure. Hamon may win little more than 10 percent of French votes. (Social Democratic parties do, however, continue to enjoy support in Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe, though at a lower level than they had been accustomed to in recent years.)
European postwar center-left parties were built on a base of unionized workers who enjoyed rising incomes as well as growing benefits from the welfare state, but also appealed to urban professionals and intellectuals. That coalition began to delaminate as white-collar jobs eclipsed blue-collar ones; the process has accelerated since the economic crisis of 2008 put an end to rising incomes. Marc Lazar, a historian at Sciences Po in Paris, argues that it is far too early to count the Socialists out for good. Nevertheless, he observes, Europe’s center-left parties have been losing supporters in three directions. Successful professionals have been leaving for “third-way” parties like Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche!, or the parties have repositioned themselves to the right, as is the case with Italy’s Democratic Party, the heir to older left-wing and social democratic groupings. The blue-collar base has defected to the far right, whether France’s National Front or the UK Independence Party. Still others, including teachers and other civil servants, have found their way to left-of-the-left groupings, like La France Insoumise. Many leaders of France’s Socialist Party have announced that they will support Macron rather than Hamon. The latest was Manuel Valls, prime minister for most of Francois Hollande’s tenure. The Socialists seem to be crumbling away by the hour.
The Communist boilerplate that I heard at the march has deep and deeply romantic sources in France. Lazar is the author of Communism: The French Passion, and he reminded me that the Communists had been France’s leading party from the end of World War II to De Gaulle’s victory in 1958. The Communists were the party of both workers and intellectuals. Mélenchon draws from a historical legacy and a sense of romance that has outlasted the party itself. As Lazar puts it, “Anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, the idea that there is just one way to change, and that is towards Communism — this culture remains part of the politics of France.” The appeal of this noble atavism has only grown as the dynamic of globalization has increasingly compelled the parties of both the center-left and -right to bow before the laws of the marketplace — embracing fiscal austerity, free trade, the free movement of capital and labor. The dream of escape from these apparently iron laws is especially potent in France, where a poll recently found that only one of four respondents viewed free trade as an opportunity rather than a threat. In England, Brexit notwithstanding, the figure was twice as high.
The politics of nostalgia
The first of three presidential debates took place last Monday. Only the five leading candidates were invited — Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, François Fillon of the center-right Republicans, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche!, Benoît Hamon of the Socialists, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The debate lasted a stupefying three hours. And it was three hours of policy. Incredibly, neither of the two moderators asked Fillon about the scandals that have engulfed his campaigns, a lengthy list that begins with apparently giving his wife and children no-show jobs in his legislative office and ends — for now — with an allegation that a Lebanese billionaire paid Fillon $50,000 to set up meetings for him with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the French oil giant Total. Le Pen, who has been accused of billing the European Union for the salaries of party workers, emerged similarly unscathed. The rival candidates raised the alleged improprieties only by way of delicate allusion. All present seemed to regard fiscal crimes with the tact which the French famously bring to extramarital sex.
The debate featured some exceptionally clarifying moments, however, above all on the question of immigration and French identity, the obsession of the National Front. Le Pen claimed that every year France absorbs 200,000 legal immigrants (the net figure is about half) and probably as many illegal ones (the state reported around 50,000 illegal immigrants per year every year between 2013 and 2015), and that terrorists were exploiting the flow to gain a foothold in France. She called for limiting the annual figure to 10,000, and for waging a campaign against “the pressure of these incessant claims in matters of food and clothing” — i.e., efforts by Muslim immigrants to keep pork out of schools and grant women the right to wear the veil. Fillon, though more cautiously seeking the xenophobic vote, declared that French Muslims must act against the rise of “intégrisme” — resistance to assimilation — and that France must tightly regulate the hiring of imams and the foreign funding of mosques.
Macron, who seemed largely intent on not offending either left or right, seized the moment by saying, “The trap in which you are in the process of falling, Mademoiselle Le Pen, by your provocations, is to divide society,” which is to make 4 million French Muslims “enemies of the republic.” Mélenchon, who risks losing working-class voters by refusing, even sotto voce, to sympathize with their rising anger against newcomers, ridiculed Le Pen’s proposal for strict limits. “But do you want to throw them in the sea?” he said, and asked voters to sympathize with the desperation that brought refugees to Europe. “If we were in their condition, we would also leave.” Mélenchon is often accused of being a populist, but a strong thread of moral universalism runs through all his views.
Nevertheless, in the course of the evening it became clear that in other respects Mélenchon and Le Pen have much in common. Sounding very much like Le Pen, Mélenchon said that France needed to “turn the page from chemical agriculture” —agribusiness — to small-scale “peasant agriculture.” Sounding very much like Mélenchon, Le Pen complained that “ultra-liberalism” and free trade had “ruined” French agriculture and industry. The state, she said, must openly favor French businesses and protect them from foreign competition. Both stoutly defended France’s sacrosanct 35-hour workweek; Mélenchon has said he would like to go to 32.
Out of time
One way of looking at the debate, and at French politics today, is as a referendum on the conditions and prospects of the West. Macron, the English-speaking youthful ex-banker and Blairite liberal, wants France to embrace globalization and free markets, at least insofar as one can divine views that he prefers to keep blurry. Fillon is a cultural conservative who appeals to Frenchmen and women, especially Catholics, who fear the loss of a traditional order, but he’s also a Thatcherite who champions deregulation. Hamon is a classic social democrat who repudiates austerity in favor of Keynesian investment, but does not fundamentally dispute the merits of the private market.
And that leaves Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, the practitioners, respectively, of a politics of economic and cultural nostalgia. Both promise to lead their followers to green pastures purged of ugly toadstools, whether financiers or Moroccan immigrants. Both regard incrementalism, the steady shaping of the world as it is, as a trap set by the enemies of the people. Both regard the state as the sole bulwark against the impersonal forces that dominate the world. It’s no surprise that large numbers of industrial workers in France’s northern Rust Belt, once the bulwark of the left, seem to be defecting to the National Front.
Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between the xenophobia and provincialism of the far right and the cosmopolitan and fraternal spirit of the Marxist left. Most people I spoke to at the march seemed angrier about the harm the EU had done to Greece than about the alleged damage to France. Because we live in an era in which cultural fears are even more potent than economic ones, Mélenchon cannot compete with Le Pen for the votes of those who fear that French identity is under attack. It is almost a mathematical certainty that Le Pen will advance from the first round of voting to the second, and that Mélenchon will not. Yet Mélenchon was widely viewed as the shining light of the debate, witty and eloquent and fully at ease. Hamon, by contrast, was generally subdued, despite getting in a few good shots at Macron. Mélenchon has said that this will be his last election. If so, he may close his career by out-polling the Socialist candidate. Given his oft-expressed contempt for the party, this would count as sweet vengeance.
Beyond this, it would be foolish to predict what French voters will do. Macron may come to appear callow next to the gravelly, bushy-browed Fillon, whose florid misdeeds may be forgiven. Or Macron could face Le Pen in the second round but lose, current polls notwithstanding, because too much of the moderate right embraces the far right and too much of the left stays home. (Virtually everyone at Mélenchon’s march told me that they would refuse to vote, or submit a blank ballot, in a contest between Le Pen and Macron.) In the Dutch election earlier this month, the center held. In France, where the sound of the people rising is like the wind in the leaves, it may not.
Having witnessed Trump and Brexit, the French are knocking on wood and whistling past graveyards. So much is at stake in this election. For once, the French conviction that their nation stands at the very heart of world affairs is all too true.
Image credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images
Like this article? Read an unlimited amount of articles, plus access to our entire 46 year printed archive, the FP App, and the FP Insights Tool when you subscribe to FP Premium for 20% off!