An Earthquake in the Making

A Mélenchon victory wouldn’t solve Europe’s crisis, but it will put us in a better position to rebuild the movements that can.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Touluse, France on April 16, 2017. Wikimedia Commons

The French presidential election is not just about France. It’s an expression of the deep crisis of European politics, the possibility of the Left to represent discontent with the status quo, and the real deficiencies of socialist strategy today.

Europe has entered an electoral cycle of great importance, up for grabs are important aspects of European politics in the post-Brexit context. The French election is just the first important turning point, to be followed by the German election (to be held on September 24) and Italian election (due for no later than May 23, 2018). All these take place at a moment marked by the obvious failure of the European integration process, exemplified in its inability to map a way out of economic stagnation, the widespread debt crisis, the systemic social violence unleashed in countries such as Greece, and the declining popular support for the European project.

What can be more telling than the fact that the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome coincided with the official beginning of the EU exit process of the world’s fifth largest economy? Moreover, despite the intensified contradictions of the eurozone, European capitalists are still opting for a fuite en avant (flight forward) tactic of more aggressive austerity and neoliberal restructuring.

The political crisis has intensified. This takes the form of increased popular disillusionment and alienation from a political class that is more and more associated with the undermining of democracy in the name of market imperatives and with the revolving doors between big business and national politics. The constant invocation of “populism” as the new enemy to be fought represents exactly the inability of European elites to understand the dynamics within their societies, in a period marked both by the combination of a crisis of neoliberalism and a certain version of globalization.

In the French election, this has taken the form of an electoral campaign full of important surprises. First of all, the implosion of François Hollande is by itself very telling of the dynamics of the political crisis. When Hollande ascended to the executive, the Socialist Party controlled the presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate, and most regional governments. Five years later, Hollande declined taking part in the election, a move without precedent for a healthy active president, and the PS is in deep crisis facing a potential split, with its official candidate, Benoît Hamon (primary win represented a rejection of neoliberal policies by the party base), running fifth in the polls.

Then there is the “Fillon case.” Everyone assumed that since Marine Le Pen was certain to make it to the second round and since the Socialists didn’t seem able to offer a challenge, then it was up to the center-right to mount the challenge. They chose Fillon instead of Sarkozy in the primary to better their odds with a combination of conservatism and extreme neoliberalism.

Yet despite being presented as a sure bet Fillon came under attack. For a country such as France, with a certain degree of corruption being considered “part of the job” for politicians (the finances of the Chirac family being the first example that comes to mind), the accusations against Fillon for misappropriating public funds to offer jobs to family members obviously did not come out of some quest for justice, but out of an attempt to create political space for other candidacies (in a similar manner with the infamous “Bokassa affair” diamonds that damaged the prospect of re-election for Giscard d’Estaing).

The case of Emmanuel Macron is by itself an important example of the transformations underway in Europe. A typical example of the “revolving doors” between politics and business (in his case, Rothschilds), he associated himself as minister with the more aggressive strand of social liberalism and instead of competing for the endorsement of the Socialists decided to create his own movement with a combination of aggressive neoliberalism plus a neither-left-nor-right aesthetic and a media-driven campaign. The fact that he is the candidate of choice of important segments of not only the French establishment but also the European Union, as attested in the publicity around his meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel last March, and his anointment by her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble most recently, is by itself rather telling of capital’s priorities.

At the same time, the fact that everyone has taken for granted Marine Le Pen entering the second round of the presidential election is itself a sign of the political crisis. What is even worse is the absence of any confrontation with the reasons and the dynamics behind her National Front’s (FN) rise.

For the systemic forces, it is as if they think it unavoidable to have a large percentage of “xenophobic populists” and the only question is how to make sure that they are contained and not reach real political power. That the far right is hijacking discontent against the European Union (the FN is France’s only major formation with a clear line against the euro) is only used to equate the rejection of the European project with reactionary politics. At the same time, despite the easy denunciations of the far right’s racism there is little discussion about the fact that aspects of its agenda form part of the political mainstream exemplified in the rise of anti-immigrant policies — from the closure of the “Balkan Corridor” for migrants to the Turkey-EU deal that reinforced “Fortress Europe.”

However, there is also another element of surprise in the French election: Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s impressive campaign. The fact that he has surpassed Fillon in the polls and there is a not-so-distant chance that he could make to the second round against Le Pen has made establishment media outlets as the Economist refer to the “nightmare option,” has forced the conservative Le Figaro to stress the dangers of a French version of Hugo Chávez and the Financial Times to report on the rise of the premium on French bonds as a result of the electoral rise of Mélenchon.

Mélenchon is obviously a candidacy “out of the framework” of mainstream politics. The dynamic of his campaign is based exactly on the social and political dynamics that the other candidates failed to pay attention to. On the one hand, he has managed to represent the widespread rejection of the aggressive neoliberalism that has been the leitmotif of both the Hollande government, the center-right, and the Macron campaign.

We should not forget that the election takes place one year after a massive social confrontation that united union struggle against labor law reform and the youth movement’s struggles against police brutality. These developments led to the inspiring Nuit Debout assemblies. Moreover, Mélenchon’s campaign manages to capture a desire for more democracy and for popular sovereignty as the collective ability for self-determination against both market forces and European integration.

Yet he is far from the “red menace” that the right-wing press talks about. Surely, there are radical positions in his campaign such as Mélenchon’s insistence on reinstating labor protections and fundamentally changing the institutional framework in favor of social rights, welfare protection, and public services, or such as his insistence that France exit NATO. Moreover, his position against the European treaties and the European Union’s neoliberal politics is more than welcome.

However, Mélenchon still insists on the “Plan A-Plan B” rhetoric regarding the eurozone. Plan A is Europe changing course, Plan B is some sort of undesirable rupture, a position that fuels illusions regarding the ability of the European Union to “reform itself.” Apart from this, there is also the open question of whether his call for a neo-Keynesian increase in demand is indeed a way out of economic crisis and unemployment.

At the same time, he has opted for a strong “neo-republican” position, which also includes a strong defense of laïcité and symbols of French patriotism, from the tricolor flag that has replaced the traditional red flag in his mass rallies to the singing of the Marseillaise. In a country where there are still strong memories of colonialism and where Islamophobia and anti-terrorism hysteria have particularly targeted Muslim workers, such choices are not without significance.

Moreover, despite his many references to the working classes and their needs, Mélenchon has chosen the more general tone of the “insubordinate France” and the call for a Sixth Republic (by itself an important reminder for the need of profound rethinking of democratic institutions) instead of opting to represent the dynamics (and organizational forms) of the protest movements that have emerged in the last years.

However, the biggest problem with the campaign of Mélenchon is its very form of organization. In 2012 Mélenchon was the candidate of a political front that included different organized currents and a series of social movements. This time, he opted for a campaign organized around his own personality. The use of an internet platform to find co-signatories of the appeal for his candidacy, which has led to an impressive number of people supporting him, means that there is no proper organizational structure to incorporate them. There are no specific collective bodies to discuss strategy or to mediate the will of the party base, only the entourage of the candidate.

The candidate’s program was not the result of a collective decision. This full endorsement of a post-party, individualized form of politics remains one of the most problematic aspects of the Mélenchon campaign. The result is a campaign that has made the most impressive use of new technologies and at the same time is based on a rather traditional conception of a presidential candidacy.

Yet it is obvious that in the current French context the candidacy of Mélenchon is indeed the one that is set against both establishment forces and the far right and the one attracting the biggest share of the anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal vote. It is important to stress that the dynamic of the Mélenchon campaign has also stopped the far right from presenting itself as a protest vote. Instead, the polls show that there are limits to Le Pen’s appeal, even to the point that her entering the second round is not as surefire as it initially seemed.

The impressive rallies he has organized, by far the biggest by any of the candidates, and his social media following attest to Mélenchon’s appeal. Moreover, the other candidacies of the radical left also fail to offer a credible alternative. Phillipe Poutou may have made an impressive presence in the second televised debate, by representing workers’ integrity and by his ridiculing the hypocrisy of both Fillon and Le Pen, yet this year’s campaign by the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) remains within the limits of a classical anti-neoliberal and anticapitalist rhetoric, which underestimates the importance of questions such as the euro and the need to work on an alternative narrative (the essence of a transition program), not simply a list of grievances and demands.

The last round of polls shows Mélenchon on the rise and the distance between him and Le Pen and Macron is getting smaller. This has triggered a series of attacks from the French press that attempt to present him as a dangerous choice. At the same time there is an effort to boost Macron. Yet it is obvious that there is still an important dynamism in the Mélenchon candidacy.

It is obvious that the extent of Mélenchon’s electoral success will have a great impact not only in France but also all over Europe, and will represent an important reminder of how dynamics coming from below can affect the political scene. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that we are still far from the elaboration of the strategy, program, and organizational forms that would create the conditions for a new “historical bloc” and a process of socialist transformation.

The Greek tragedy and Syriza’s capitulation has been a warning of the potential cost of not coming up with these plans. The hope created by electoral advances such as Mélenchon’s should not makes us forget that the difficult and urgent task of re-composing the Left that still lies ahead of us. However, there is no doubt that the political earthquake across Europe that Mélenchon’s electoral success would cause would put us in a better position to accomplish that task.