In the run-up to the French legislative elections Olivier Tonneau discusses the rise of France Insoumise.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon may have fallen 600,000 votes short of making it to the second round of the French presidential election but he has certainly asserted his dominance over the French left. Many feathers were ruffled in the process: Mélenchon shocked the establishment by refusing to call on his followers to vote for Emmanuel Macron against Marine Pen (asserting that “everybody’s conscience will tell them where their duty lays”). He also adopted a hard line against the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) with regard to the legislative elections. Both stances may mark the end of class-based parliamentary left-wing politics as we know it and the birth of a new and promising force – France Insoumise (FI). For Mélenchon, it is the end of a long journey.
Mélenchon left the Parti Socialiste (PS) in 2009 when he realized that its liberal drift could not be halted. He formed the Parti de Gauche (PG) with former Green MP Martine Billard and together they laid the foundations of French eco-socialism. In 2012, the PG and the PCF collaborated in the Front de Gauche (FdG). The two parties were complementary: the PG had scarce resources but an exceptional front-man, and the PCF, which still held many local seats thanks to alliances with the PS, provided the financial resources and the boundless energy of its fairly large, disciplined and active militant base. Mélenchon’s magisterial campaign turned him into a political heavyweight. The aftermath of the campaign, however, was fraught with tensions.
After 2012, Mélenchon’s aim was to continue his rise to power, which could only happen if he stood in frontal opposition to the PS. He therefore wanted the FdG to sever all ties with the PS and run independent candidates at every election. For the PCF, such strategy spelt electoral oblivion and, consequently, financial doom. They formed alliances with the PS under the FdG banner, which infuriated Mélenchon who decided, in 2016, to impose his views: he ended the FdG and unilaterally declared his candidacy to the presidency under the banner of a lose movement, France Insoumise (FI). His hope was that the communist base would force their leaders to support him on his own terms, and so it happened. The final blow will be delivered at the legislative elections.
The two reasons why Mélenchon needed the PCF were money and a militant base. He made clear that candidates could only run under the FI banner if they signed a strict charter which channels the funds attached to electoral mandates towards FI. Even if communists were elected on an FI ticket, the PCF would still lose a big share of its income and, therefore, its political clout. Meanwhile, the astonishing success of FI – the word ‘Insoumis’ has now entered common parlance – has provided Mélenchon with an autonomous base. Mélenchon is therefore confident that he can now stand alone, thus consigning France’s oldest left-wing force to irrelevance.
Can France Insoumise occupy the space that was once filled by the PCF? It will be fascinating to see. FI is a populist movement, as defined by political theorist Chantal Mouffe. As such, it is perfectly suited to the crucial post-Marxist task of organizing the precariat. The precariat, as theorized by Guy Standing, is not so much a class as a status that exists in every class: remarkably, France Insoumise voters come in equal measures from the middle class and from employees and workers. They are moved by cross-sectional issues ranging from animals’ rights to welfare, structured around one fundamental demand: a constituent assembly that would write a new constitution and found France’s sixth republic. The foregrounding of constitutional issues baffled commentators, who thought such abstract questions had little mobilizing power. They were wrong: the sixth Republic has proven highly appealing to those who have lost all trust in the state as such. For these disenfranchised people, chosing between Macron or Le Pen made no sense: whoever won, the deep state would remain unchanged – fraught with corruption, police brutality and routine discrimination. Hence Mélenchon’s crucial decision not to give instructions before the second round of the presidential election: he knew that people had flocked to him on the promise of a peaceful revolution but would feel betrayed if he then asked to play the Parliamentary game.
It is worth mentioning that Mélenchon and FI are in favour of the strict application of the laws of 1905 which define laïcité. These laws strictly separate the state from all religious cults, and forbid the state from funding any cult. However, religious groups have all the rights enjoyed by any association. The 1905 law is very hospitable to religions and, contrary to a widespread belief, does not forbid religious expression in ‘public spaces’ but only in the ‘public sphere’, i.e. the State should not display religious affiliations, nor should any of its representatives. Mélenchon did support the ban on the veil at school (schools being considered specific contexts) and the ban on the burka. He has, however, opposed recent attempts to ban the veil at universities and other public spaces and has clearly opposed, during the presidential campaign, the ‘clothes police’.
Significantly, FI’s highly diverse sympathizers seem to gel. Key to this success is the movement’s capacity to invent new forms of political sociability. During the presidential campaign, the creativity was astonishing: some invented a board game, others a computer game, many did wonderful music videos, and this writer co-authored a comic strip. The movement is also clearly benefiting from the culture of its former PCF members: it has revived all kinds of communist traditions such as neighbourhood food and drink sharing. In the last stages of the presidential campaign, friends told me that the atmosphere was electric in the streets of Paris, with ad hoc meetings taking place everywhere. Many, including me, had never before experienced a collective political awakening. Perhaps with France Insoumise we are finally witnessing the successful articulation of the horizontality that characterized Indignados and Occupy and the verticality which remains a necessary condition of the conquest of power. Should that be the case, there would be no reason to lament the final decay of the PCF: its cells might have been integrated into a healthy and vital organism.
Olivier is a lecturer in Modern Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge, and member of France Insoumise. He is standing in the legislative elections culminating on 18 June for the third constituency of French residents abroad.