How France Insoumise Was Reduced to a Protest Vote

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s breakthrough in the 2017 presidential election brought France Insoumise to the heart of French public life. Yet today, as its base shrinks to a traditional far-left electorate, the movement’s very survival is in doubt.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon at a leftist demonstration on April 12, 2014 in Paris, France. (Flickr)

After an almost perfect performance in the 2017 presidential election, today disappointments are piling up for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (LFI) movement. Although some of LFI’s setbacks can be attributed to external factors, its electoral collapse — from 19.6 percent in the first round of the 2017 presidential contest to 6.3 percent in this May’s European elections — above all owes to its significant strategic disorientation.

Already in 2017, it was clear that LFI faced two major issues if it wanted to expand its electorate to embrace both those voters who saw Emmanuel Macron as a force for disrupting existing elites, and the millions of blue-collar voters who were tempted to back Marine Le Pen.

First was the need to build credibility, so that Mélenchon would not be perceived as a “leap into the unknown.” After all, no one wants to stake their future on a poker move. In a situation where neoliberalism generates so many uncertainties and such great anxiety, the mass of French voters want certainty rather than mere adventures.

The second task for LFI was to advance a patriotic discourse of protection against the threats of globalization. Such a discourse would have to be built in inclusive terms, on the basis of a civic and political — rather than ethnic and cultural — conception of the nation. This was fundamental both for recreating a bond between citizens and for breaking the infernal circle of atomization and individualism. Clearly, Marine Le Pen’s electorate has a strong demand for protection. Yet LFI would have to re-signify this demand, not scapegoating the weakest (as the far right does) but instead pointing to the elites who fail to recognize the turmoil within French society.

In other words, the challenge for LFI was to provide a promise of order in place of neoliberal chaos, and not simply a discourse of protest and opposition against the existing system. No one needs convincing that Jean-Luc Mélenchon is an opponent of the establishment — everyone knows that already. The room for progress instead lies elsewhere, in a bid for greater credibility as a force of government. While such an effort was set in motion after the 2017 presidential election, it was interrupted that same September. Since that point, LFI has failed to regain the initiative.

Where It All Began

If we look back to the aftermath of the presidential election, we can identify a series of hesitations over the right strategy to adopt. In need of an answer, the movement has, however, returned to its original radical-left culture, resulting in a series of strategic mistakes.

One key error was — to put it in Gramscian terms — LFI’s determination to fight a war of movement, focused on immediate tactical combat, when it was instead necessary to wage a war of position, gradually building the foundations of a different order. In other words, LFI has activated a discourse suitable for times of hard struggle in a moment when it was instead necessary to develop a strategy appropriate to calmer times when the balance of power is less fluid. LFI’s overly aggressive approach led it into an impasse upon the beginning of the gilets jaunes movement, during which it was necessary to mobilize — calling for the removal of the powers that be — but also to present the party as a plausible alternative.

It was no surprise that LFI did, indeed, support the gilets jaunes and oppose the government. Yet effective political speech can’t just say the same thing over and over. No one will listen if there are no variations in the melody for months on end — it turns into mere background noise, which everyone ignores.

To illustrate how this situation came to be, it’s worth looking back at the key moments that followed the presidential election.

First came the parliamentary elections of June 2017, electing the National Assembly the month after Macron had defeated Le Pen for the presidency. In these elections, in which LFI needed to win over Socialist voters, it nonetheless mounted an aggressive attack against former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve. Though he was the only relatively popular Socialist minister, it described him as the “murderer” of climate activist Rémi Fraisse.

At the same time, Mélenchon called on French citizens to vote for LFI so that he could become prime minister and set up a Sixth Republic, even despite Macron’s victory in the presidential contest. Yet in the eyes of the population, such big questions are instead a matter for the main event — the presidential election, which had ended in May. This ploy could never have worked a month later, in a period of depoliticization and a big decline in turnout.

Yet there had been a simple alternative — to call for an LFI vote that would help provide the foundations of the future order it seeks to build. This is exactly the kind of message that should have been mobilized on the night of the first round of the presidential election, instead of delivering an image of defeat and bitterness.

France Insoumise in the National Assembly

Despite this bad campaign, yielding seventeen out of 577 seats on 11 percent of the vote, the establishment of an LFI parliamentary group did allow the movement to regain some positive momentum.

The arrival of this group led to extensive media coverage of the newly elected MPs’ actions. One of their first acts, however, was to get rid of ties — typical of an attitude that consists in flattering one’s core electorate (especially the urban/graduate section of the radical-left base) and promoting an imagery of disorder and contestation. Yet among working-class voters a different outlook remains dominant — the demand for “proper” representatives. This may seem archaic, but it is still a political fact.

The line chosen after September 2017 was a logical continuation of these first moves, as LFI MPs began to denounce the draft decrees on the labor law as a “social coup d’état.” This semantic choice reflected a strategy of seeking intense polarization at a time of political calm, when most French people took a more “wait-and-see” approach to Macron’s actions in office. In this same vein, LFI called on the population to take to the streets with pots and pans — a practice typical of Tunisia and Latin America, but not France — and for one million people to descend on the Champs-Élysées. The absurdity of this call expressed the belief that it would be possible to provoke a regime crisis simply by pressing a button.

However, this discourse was not yet unambiguous. This was well-illustrated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s first appearance on political TV show L’Émission politique, in front of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, on September 28, 2017. Here, observers were positively surprised by the cordiality of the speech and the respect demonstrated between the two men.

The Strategy of Protest

It was on this same show that Mélenchon’s fate was sealed on November 30, 2017. He entered into an extremely sharp exchange of views on Venezuela with Laurence Debray, which stood completely in contradiction with the image of an alternative standing above France’s existing party divides — something that Mélenchon ought to have cherished and preserved. His intervention on this show instead expressed a very clear choice: “we must oppose, oppose, and oppose.”

There were reasons for this choice — after all, at the time there were some first signs of mobilization against Macron, built around students and railway workers. The choice in favor of the politics of protest thus implied a proactive participation in the mobilization. However, this period also showed the weakness of the trade unions. This fight was, in short, lost in advance, because of its unpopularity and its inability to go beyond the traditional bastions of trade unionism, or indeed, to renew its forms of mobilization.

Like all traditional left-wing mobilizations — i.e. those composed of civil servants, students, and graduates in precarious situations — its failure was predictable, particularly given that it was triggered less than a year after the new president was elected.

From this point of view, the successful strike wave of winter 1995 was an exception. Society has, in any case, changed a lot since then. A more prudent attitude would have been to support the mobilization but to act as an institutional transmission belt and a megaphone for protesters in the National Assembly, rather than trying to substitute for the trade unions and their weaknesses. As a result, the setbacks for that movement became the defeat of LFI itself, as the flagbearer of the losing side.

After this mobilization began the process of drawing up the LFI list for the European elections. This procedure, however, led to a change of culture within LFI, replacing its previous outward-looking approach with a far more introverted focus. Here, mid-ranking cadres focused on internal matters, seeking to mobilize resources to advance their respective “pawns” and try to influence the movement’s overall line.

The effect of this interminable battle for control was to exacerbate internal differences and produce a series of widely publicized departures from LFI’s ranks. The movement has, in the past, acknowledged that it is not based on internal democracy, which is hardly any great drama for a political party or movement. In this case, too, it might have been more prudent to settle the issue in a few days, accepting the need to impose a list of candidates in an authoritative fashion, rather than make a scene of the movement’s internal rows.

The police raids at the movement’s HQ, as well as in party officials’ own homes, brought even more problems. This scandalous — and political — police operation caused great difficulties for LFI, particularly because scenes of its leaders angrily resisting the police’s arrival showed the French people an aggressive, even worrying, face of the movement. If this situation was imposed on the movement from the outside, it was also part of the reason why voters began to turn away from it.

Confused on Europe

In parallel with this process, LFI’s political line for the May 2019 European elections was unreadable.  On the one hand, it insisted that the vote would be a “referendum on Macron,” even though LFI had not been the leading opposition force for many months: the idea of a referendum could thus only benefit the far right.

On the other hand, one of the assumptions of the campaign was that only the urban and educated electorate voted in European elections. As a result, LFI believed that it was necessary to “attract the bobo [urban-bourgeois leftist] electorate” and come hunting on the same terrain occupied by the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, Benoît Hamon’s Génération.s, and the Greens. Yet this meant seeking to gain market share within this same terrain, rather than cultivate its own originality. Even for those who watched the European debates, it was difficult to distinguish between the lines put forward by these different forces, commonly each considered to be part of the Left.

Indeed, the European results showed the opposite of what LFI had thought: for the forces that won out were those that had a clearly identifiable message. Despite the lack of charisma of his lead candidate Nathalie Loiseau, Emmanuel Macron’s repression of the gilets jaunes and assertion of his own authoritarianism attracted a substantial part of the traditional right’s electorate. The Greens capitalized on their simple branding, which was itself put on the agenda by the climate movement. The far right, for its part, flourished on its message of protection and on the fear of Macron coming in first place. It was Le Pen’s party that won votes from the logic of the “anti-Macron referendum.”

But what did LFI do? It proposed a “path of insubordination.” Few understood what this actually meant. These elections were an opportunity to affirm a message of protection and defense of France’s interests in Europe, at a time when essential instruments of our sovereignty are being sold off. Though the far right had been on the ropes, the opportunity was missed to win back some of its voters who above all sought the return of the welfare state.

To this picture we could add some rather dubious campaign choices which ultimately flopped, especially LFI’s massive spending on holovans (vans showing speeches by candidates by hologram), which no longer looked like an innovation, or indeed, its countless local meetings, which absorbed a lot of energy and resources in a campaign that is in fact mainly fought in mass media and social networks.

Politics of Protest

The result of all this is that LFI has shrunk into the space of the marginal radical left. This is magnificently symbolized by the proposed organizational solution of a “popular federation” — sounding rather like a re-edition of the Left Front, which collapsed after the 2012 presidential election. LFI has, indeed, far too often understood populism as a discourse of protest and aggressive antagonism. Yet as the experience of Íñigo Errejón in Spain — a figure very close to Ernesto Laclau’s ideas — successfully illustrates, there is no reason why this should be the case. When we speak of populism, we mean the search for transversality based on opposition to a common adversary. However, there is no reason why the opposition to Macron should turn into so-called resistencialisme — an obsession with protest.

In the period following the 2017 presidential election, many fundamental tasks needed addressing in order to wage a “war of position” and acquire the institutional culture essential for the conquest of the state and the exercise of power. One of the shortcomings of the new populist movements, which are very effective in winning elections and moving rapidly within “hot” electoral periods, is precisely their lack of institutionalization. Even without LFI assuming the form of a traditional party, it could have considered creating parallel organizational forms that it would be able to develop in “colder,” calmer periods.

This is an important condition for the work of legitimization that is so imperative for any force that seeks to bring about radical change. This is a question of codes and culture, not just of political programs. Conquering the state means activating networks of power and winning over decision-makers who act according to their own specific logic. Marc Endeweld’s recent book on Macron’s networks brilliantly illustrates the existence of a deep state that cannot be dislodged by elections. We must, therefore, be ready to play within its interstices and contradictions. However, this is a long-term task that needs to be prepared for well in advance. LFI’s creation of a think tank is a step in this direction, yet it came a full two years after the presidential election.

In tandem with this institutional effort, Mélenchon should have taken a step back from the front line much earlier, in order to position himself as an authoritative figure standing above internal divides. After the 2017 presidential election — in which she performed catastrophically in the second round — Marine Le Pen disappeared for almost two years, but that didn’t prevent her from returning to the spotlight in time for the 2019 European contest. From this point of view, LFI’s voluntarism and obsessive focus on the war of movement have turned against it.

In this sense, the emergence of the gilets jaunes movement was less an opportunity for LFI than evidence that there is no longer any opposition force in France capable of channeling popular discontent. If Le Pen’s party has recovered slightly, fortunately it seems condemned to do no more than conserve its existing electoral base. Rather, people use extra-institutional means to make their voices heard when all the mechanisms for challenging anger within institutions have been destroyed. From this point of view, the Macron government’s moves in launching politically motivated police operations and sabotaging opposition forces have served the purpose of increasing a sense of tension.

The gilets jaunes also provided a second strategic lesson: you can’t start a war of movement simply by pressing a button. We must accept that we do not choose the field on which the political battle takes place. This is why it is necessary to adapt to different types of periods. When society is highly polarized, it is useful to activate a greater dose of conflict in one’s discourse, while also positioning oneself as an alternative. When the political situation calms down, even temporarily, the level of conflict must be reduced.

Otherwise, the risk is that the movement will be left out of step with common sense and thus unable to shape it. We could draw a parallel with the question of uniting the left-wing parties. Just after the presidential election, LFI could have reached an agreement to its own advantage, which would have ensured its lasting domination over the other left-wing forces. Yet it was only after LFI began to slump in the polls that it began to consider Macron the leader of the Right (a debatable proposition) and thus see its own task as a matter of becoming hegemonic on the Left, once this prospect had in fact already disappeared from view.

What Now?

On the eve of next spring’s municipal elections, LFI is in a much-weakened position. Its political capital has been squandered, making it far harder to wage a war of position than would have been the case two years ago. This is likely to be true until the next presidential election, in three years’ time. It already seems to have been agreed by all concerned that a new tool and a new transversal option replacing LFI — and not defined on the basis of the left-right divide — are going to be needed for the 2022 contest. However, it seems unlikely that the movement’s 2017 success can be reproduced, without very significant changes.

In this sense, it is worth defining a series of conditions for a potentially successful force. First, it must build an opposition between the majority of society and the small privileged minority that has taken over the state, the media, the economy, etc. It is this type of cleavage that can allow one to form a majority in society and resonate with the mood in the country. Moreover, imposing this type of cleavage makes it possible to erase the one that the far right is trying to advance in its bid to shape the political agenda and reorder the political field, i.e. by dividing French nationals from non-assimilated immigrants.

Second, if this movement wishes to expand toward other available electorates (which it needs to win), its rhetoric and identity must stand above the left-right axis. In particular, it needs to win over the element of Macron’s 2017 voters who sought turnover in the political class (so-called dégagistes); those who abstained; the blue-collar France currently captured by the far right; and the young people who were one of Mélenchon’s strong points in 2017. This is where a progressive patriotism drawing on the French revolutionary tradition comes into play, as a transversal reference point that goes beyond the limited imagination of the traditional left.

Third, this force must earn trust and demonstrate its own credibility. From this point of view, the discourse on convening a constituent assembly in order to create a Sixth Republic in the aftermath of the election seems counterproductive. It is not plausible to say, “Give me power so that the next day I can abandon it.” Voters elect representatives to assume power and responsibility. It is here that Mélenchon’s reference to Latin America comes up against its limits — a preferable reference point would be Labour’s shadow cabinet system, as a government-in-waiting.

Fourth, this option should appear to be new and innovative, not nostalgic for the forms of the past. In particular, France is straggling far behind in terms of the political use of the digital environment. While there is much room for innovation, few political forces seem to have taken this path. From this point of view, LFI remains the most advanced formation, with the possible exception of Macron in some regards. As the Italian and American political contexts illustrate, there is much ground to be won on this terrain.

Finally, no approach can win out over Macron’s unless it is built around a rhetorical bridge that combines a message of order and protection, against the chaos of neoliberalism, with a different message of novelty, hype, and disruption. This implies the need to ally progressive demands with more defensive aspirations to preserve some things that exist already.

Is LFI still capable of transforming itself into a party of government and radical change? There are many reasons to doubt this. Its advantage, for the time being, is that its competitors seem even less able to exploit the new political situation created by Macronism, which has, for now at least, destroyed any form of alternative within the oligarchic bloc.

2022 is still a long way off and Macron’s first term has not been without its surprises, for instance, the scandals surrounding his bodyguard, or indeed, the emergence of the gilets jaunes movement. More than ever, the French political field seems marked by radical uncertainty and the impossibility of making simple predictions. There is no doubt that the balance of power is still very much in flux. Nothing has been decided for certain.