Rebuilding France Insoumise

France Insoumise’s future is in doubt. But disputes over its internal structures mask a bigger problem — the party isn't tapping into popular anger.

Jean-Luc Melenchon attends the May Day demonstration on May 1, 2012 in Paris, France. (Trago / Getty Images)

Less than a day after the final results came in, La France Insoumise (LFI) Clémentine Autain dropped an unexpectedly scorching critique of her own party.

Interviewed in the liberal L’Obs magazine after the left-populist movement finished with just 6.3 percent of the vote in France’s elections to European Parliament — well behind President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République en Marche, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National, but also the Greens — the parliamentarian slammed a lack of “internal democracy” within her party and called into question its political strategy.

LFI, Autain said, had mistakenly ignored calls to overhaul its structure — a reference to its lack of elected leadership. In her view, it had also misjudged the mood of the French electorate, opting for a politics of “resentment” and betting on an escalating “clash” with Macron instead of building a more positive alternative with potential allies.

Then came the final bombshell. Autain put out a call for a “Big Bang” — an open-ended plea for left-wing politicians and activists to set aside their differences and start working together, along with trade unionists, environmentalists, feminists, and antiracist groups. Signed by a number of public intellectuals and two other MPs — Elsa Faucillon and Stéphane Peu of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) — the project kicks off with a June 30 conference in Paris.

Whatever the merits or limitations of this initiative, Autain’s call has indisputably triggered debate among LFI leaders and sympathizers. On one side are those who believe it needs to throw its lot in with the rest of the Left, to improve its ties with other organizations and defend the broadly internationalist values they represent. On the other, there are those who believe the party needs to stick with its populist tack, emphasizing issues like sovereignty and its program’s commitment to France’s universal values. Meanwhile, for the vast majority, the path forward lies somewhere in the middle — a continuation of the delicate balancing act that the party’s charismatic leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has managed to perform thus far. But what unites all concerned is a clear sense that things cannot go on as before.

Beyond Left Unity

Elsa Faucillon insists the “Big Bang” is not another vain attempt to “save the Left” through a new electoral alliance. After all, that’s just what the newly formed ideas group Place Publique did earlier this year. The organization held a series of public meetings under the guise of rebuilding “direct democracy” before it moved to endorse the zombified Parti Socialiste. Ultimately, it succeeded in placing its founder, the youthful Europeanist Raphaël Glucksmann, at the top of that party’s list for last month’s European elections.

“Our ambition is not to create a cartel of political organizations,” Faucillon, who like Autain represents a suburban district north of Paris, tells Jacobin. “Adding up scores of left-wing parties doesn’t create a political dynamic. A dynamic is something that comes together with ingredients and time, you have to create hope too.”

Faucillon insists the “Big Bang” is less aimed at building ties between party officials than at sparking discussions among activists. These talks, the thinking goes, will help kickstart the process of building an alternative to the increasingly bleak divide that dominates French politics today: President Emmanuel Macron and his pro-business liberalism versus Marine Le Pen and her race-baiting nationalism. Three years ahead of the country’s next presidential elections, these two camps show no signs of fading — even after the outbreak of the Yellow Vest protests and their popular demands to defend public services, tax the rich, and empower citizens through referenda.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Faucillon says. “But we can’t stay immobilized before the current political situation and the danger of a long-term [Macron-Le Pen] duel. Also, there’s the danger of seeing not just left-wing organizations disappear, but left-wing values too, left-wing aspirations in society.”

Since at least the final weeks of the 2017 presidential campaign, the task of upholding those values has fallen largely on the shoulders of La France Insoumise. In Faucillon’s view, LFI’s campaign succeeded back then because it recognized itself as the best option available to left-leaning voters and built an ambitious platform that reflected classic left-wing values: things like boosting public spending to tackle poverty, targeting wealth inequality and addressing climate change. Ultimately, that platform won roughly 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. Two years later, French voters were clearly less enthused by it.

Anti-Social Media

To be sure, a major reason behind last month’s poor result was the nature of the election itself. The campaign for European Parliament, a legislative body that lacks the authority to even propose its own legislation, tends to interest firm believers in the European Union as well as its harshest critics — in other words, those drawn to Macron and Le Pen. Even with relatively high voter turnout, participation in last month’s election was about 25 percent lower than both rounds of the presidential contest. Many of those who cast ballots for Mélenchon in 2017 simply stayed at home. It didn’t help that many within LFI have nuanced — and sometimes differing — views on the European Union, ranging from those who want to threaten to leave the EU’s treaties outright to those committed to working within their confines, at least in the short term.

Yet this alone doesn’t explain the party’s poor performance in the European elections. According to one poll conducted on the day of the contest, a whopping one-fifth of Mélenchon’s 2017 voters cast ballots for the Greens in last month’s election. And while La France Insoumise won the highest share of the youth vote two years ago, this time around just 8 percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four opted for the party. Instead, it was the Greens who received the highest share of support from the youngest age bracket.

Faucillon, who backed Mélenchon in the 2017 presidential election, pins the blame, in part, on a shift in La France Insoumise’s rhetoric. “I think they lost their strength to convince people,” she says. “To convince without having to permanently resort to invective. It’s important to be able to represent people’s anger, but one can’t just bring together different sources of anger. There needs to be a progressive, emancipatory end-result to it, otherwise you go toward resentment.”

Indeed, for many, the party has been locked in a tiresome competition with Le Pen’s party over who can best criticize the president on a given day — a politics of fire and fury that was epitomized by the reaction to last fall’s police raids. In November 2018, authorities raided LFI offices as part of an investigation into campaign financing. Party leaders gathered at the scene for an emergency rally in response, then things went overboard. As court officials blocked the doors and seized information — a standard judicial procedure in France — Mélenchon was filmed confronting one of them. “I am the Republic!” he yelled, a gut-wrenchingly awkward reference to his role as a parliamentarian that was widely ridiculed on social media.

“I think the display of the raids on social media, which were seen massively by young people, provoked a rupture with first-time voters and young people who were a motor of the presidential campaign,” says Lenny Benbara, the founder and editor of Le Vent Se Lève, an online media outlet that often publishes sympathetic commentary on La France Insoumise. “They lost a lot of the energy that these hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the campaign.”

Benbara also agrees the party’s negative tone has turned off both former and would-be LFI voters. On the other hand, he doesn’t believe the organization should unite with other left-wing parties like the Communists or Génération.s, the small French affiliate of Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement. Or, for that matter, deliberately chase down left-wing voters. For advocates of the so-called populist strategy, the success of La France Insoumise comes precisely from its ability to tap into disenchanted voters who often stay away from the polls.

Indeed, since the call for a “Big Bang” went out, the populist wing of La France Insoumise has been fighting back publicly. Raquel Garrido, an advisor on Melenchon’s 2017 campaign, has blasted Autain’s hopes of recreating a left-wing bloc as outmoded and ineffective. This week, another group of LFI supporters — including former members of its inner circle, Djordje Kuzmanovic and Charlotte Girard — put their names to a column lamenting the “collapse” of the “hope” brought by the 2017 campaign. “It’s high time we feed the democratic appetite shown by the Yellow Vests,” they wrote, as they called for a “broad citizens’ movement.”

Not Starting From Scratch

Some degree of clarity might arrive this weekend, as La France Insoumise activists gather in Paris for what’s been dubbed a “representative assembly” — an informal party congress of sorts. Delegates, who have been selected at random, are expected to weigh into the organization’s structure and debates over internal democracy. There appears to be a broad consensus that reforms of some kind are needed. The so-called “gaseous” organizational model long defended by Mélenchon — a group of leaders responding to and supposedly working in tandem with local “action groups” — seems increasingly indefensible.

“We need to own the fact that we’re an organization, not just a movement,” David Guiraud, youth spokesman for La France Insoumise, tells Jacobin. “We need an organization that’s less gaseous. The loose structure of our action groups is helpful, but when something goes wrong, there are few people to turn to … we need to solidify things a bit.”

When it comes to the movement’s broader political vision, the debate risks getting messier. Like most within LFI’s group in the National Assembly, Guiraud rejects the call for a Big Bang.

“For me the biggest problem is thinking we have to do everything from scratch,” Guiraud says. “As if we didn’t have a social base. Or that we need a new organization with new people. We have a social base, even if this base doesn’t always mobilize … When you go to working-class neighborhoods, we’re in the majority, in terms of ideas and attachment to Jean-Luc Mélenchon.”

Rejecting the debate between left-wingers and populists as a theoretical squabble, Guiraud says La France Insoumise faces more important and pressing questions: who to ally with in next year’s municipal elections and under what conditions, how to strengthen ties with unions and other local activists, and, finally, the role of Mélenchon himself.

The latter could be the most challenging of all. The movement’s most recognizable figure has proven adept at bridging internal divides and presenting La France Insoumise’s ideas to a mass audience. Following the European elections Mélenchon has said that he’s reflecting over his political future, fueling speculation that he could step back from the spotlight. “The question,” asks Guiraud, “is do we have someone else who’s able to do this?”