Jean-Luc Mélenchon Defied the Smears — and Provided Hope for France’s Left

Danièle Obono

After years of media attempts to cast him as “divisive” and “soft on Islamism,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon took a historic high vote in France’s election. Leftist MP Danièle Obono told Jacobin how his campaign defied the smears — and saved the Left from collapse.

Former French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished third in the election's first round, gives a press conference focused on the Union Populaire alliance on April 21. (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

The second round of this Sunday’s French presidential election is a grim prospect, with another runoff between incumbent Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen. The televised debate between the pair on Wednesday night showed that neither has any answers to the cost of living crisis, never mind deeper challenges like climate change.

Yet if this runoff was widely expected, the first round on April 10 also produced a strong result for the radical-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the France Insoumise movement. While mainstays of the corporate center left denounced Mélenchon as “not pro-business” enough and soft on “Islamic communalism,” he secured a massive vote among lower-income voters, young people, and the main cities in general, taking over half of the vote in several suburbs of Paris.

Widely written off even a few months ago, Mélenchon secured 22 percent of the national vote (or 7.7 million votes), beating not only his 2017 result but even his best poll ratings, thus also making his movement a strong pole of attraction for the Left. With parliamentary elections scheduled for June, the Union Populaire that backed his candidacy has now asked other smaller parties to begin discussions on joint lists. Yet differences remain — in particular given France Insoumise’s confrontational approach toward the European Union’s neoliberal treaties and its sharper opposition to rising Islamophobia.

Danièle Obono is a France Insoumise member of Parliament. She spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about Sunday’s runoff, the Mélenchon campaign, and the reconfiguration of the French left.

David Broder

You had an excellent campaign — but still, we have a much worse second round than if Mélenchon was still in the race. Macron has made tiny “concessions,” for instance saying that he will increase the retirement age to 64 and not 65. But he also says he is seeking endorsement for his program, not just a “republican front” against Le Pen. What do you think the effects of Macron campaigning like this will be — and does it make a Le Pen victory more likely?

Danièle Obono

Macron has been working for two years to have this second round. He said in 2019 that, for him, Marine Le Pen is his preferred opponent. This outcome was also fueled by his anti-migrant and Islamophobic policies, and his way of responding to the social and economic crisis, as he ruled with a right-wing government with a marked authoritarian tendency. Macron has legitimized parts of Le Pen’s discourse and thus her “detoxification” strategy, as have the dominant media outlets. We see this in the emergence of Éric Zemmour’s candidacy — created from scratch, from above, by a French oligarch, it took up extreme-right racist talking points.

This has normalized Le Pen. The difficulty is that — even if on the substantial economic questions she differs little from Macron and neoliberalism — unlike in 2017, we’ve now got the real experience of five years of Macron, so it’s hard to make people understand how it’ll be worse under Le Pen. People really hate Macron and he has a catastrophic record. So for him to turn around now and try and scare people with the threat of Le Pen is hardly going to be very effective.

Macron is evidently not waging an anti-fascist campaign. He is not only clearly of the Right but from a right which doesn’t even have the reflexes of the likes of Jacques Chirac [the incumbent who faced and defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 runoff], who knew he had to, at least temporarily, not take things too far.

Our position in France Insoumise has a red line: not one vote for Le Pen. I don’t think we’re still in the era where parties instructing people how to vote really affect a large number of people. So here we are showing why Le Pen is indeed a far-right candidate, who doesn’t serve some sort of popular interest. What’s for sure is that, these last five years, Macron hasn’t been any kind of bulwark against her.

David Broder

You say voting instructions are not so effective anymore, and one reason is the collapse of the old parties — both the center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans. Instead, this result points to a three-way division of the French political field: neoliberal right, the far right, and the popular-left pole. Ahead of these elections, there were many calls to create a united candidacy based on the small center-left parties, and even a dubious “popular primary.” In the end, Mélenchon seemed to mobilize most of this political space, but never had these parties’ support. Why do you think that was? Is it that his campaign was more conventionally left-wing than in 2017?

Danièle Obono

Let’s just say that, since 2017, we’ve noticed that you don’t get credibility just by adding party names together. We’ve suffered the consequences of social liberalization, of François Hollande’s presidency [2012–17] and even Macron claiming to be somehow of the Left, which destroys the credibility of the word. These postures no longer have anything to do with the reality of class struggle.

We’ve always said that unity doesn’t come from the top but must be built from the base. We started the campaign very early, asking people to agree not with labels but with the program. In the dynamic we built, that’s far from secondary, because the program is the expression of struggles. We built it from the hearings we held and the parliamentary work we did, but it is a program that directly answers the demands of social movements.

Connected to that, I think the second dimension was our Union Populaire strategy [a “parliament” of supporters largely drawn from social movements], embracing all the interlocutors we’ve had these last five years. Moreover, we have the five-year experience of a parliamentary group that showed that it was worthwhile to have elected officials. So there are many people: trade unionists, people in struggles, figures like former Attac president Aurélie Trouvé, who saw what we were able to do and joined us in the Union Populaire.

You mentioned the so-called popular primary. It suggested pulling someone out of the hat two or three months before the election based on personality alone — a superficial approach. But we already had the experience of 2012 and 2017 and could deploy the organization that France Insoumise has developed, with our going door-to-door, our collective intelligence, and the credit we have built up.

Added to that, and it’s no mere detail, was our candidate’s own appeal, even if he was not the most popular among a certain aesthetic left. The fact that for five years he spoke up on key questions — notably in combating Islamophobia and racism — also brings a legitimacy beyond the circles of the traditional left, among the popular classes and the victims of such discrimination.

Every time there were attacks against France Insoumise, and in particular against Jean-Luc Mélenchon, each time it was perceived in a way very shaped by class criteria. For instance, the incident when our premises were raided continued to weigh badly on us, but nine times out of ten the people most negatively shocked were the middle classes, the bourgeois, the intellectuals, etc.

Our strategy in this campaign was to not respond to any of the attacks and to remain above the fray. I think that helped with our credibility and made people focus on the message and the content of the program. We mobilized a good portion of usual abstainers, though not all.

David Broder

On abstentions, I’d like to mention some of the often stigmatized neighborhoods where turnout is generally lower. But this time, there was a larger mobilization than polls predicted. In the banlieues of Paris and other big cities, Mélenchon won heavily, sometimes with over 50 percent. It’s common in anglophone media to hear that he is a chauvinist Islamophobe. Yet in France we have figures like the Parti Socialiste’s Carole Delga condemning France Insoumise as too close to Islamism and Islamic “communalism,” whereas no one ever calls the center left nationalist and racist. What do you think explains this support — and has Mélenchon’s own position shifted, for instance when he attended the rally to defend the mosque where worshippers were attacked by an Islamophobic gunman?

Danièle Obono

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is neither an Islamophobe nor an Islamist. Those labels are outrageous and false. He is — we are — republican and anti-racist. We defend the principle of laïcité as established by the 1905 law: separation between churches and the state; freedom to express and practice one’s religion; freedom to not have any. But this concept has been misused and weaponized against the very people it was meant to protect.

There is an extreme-right-wing radicalization of political discourse and the media, and I think that is not completely reflected in society, even if it has its effects there. It translated into a deadly racist obsession with Muslims in France. And I think Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s political intelligence is that he has quickly understood this — as you have to do, if you’re an MP for a city like Marseille.

With this Islamophobic obsession brewing, it is no longer possible to take a somehow abstract or theoretical approach, when people are being endangered, as with the attack on the mosque. So yes, this moment helped to clarify things. There were also other clarifying moments: the “yellow vests” movement and then the police union demonstration outside the National Assembly [a rally backed by all parties in Parliament except France Insoumise].

The question of Islamophobia embodies the problem of the system and the stigmatization that takes place there. But so, too, does the yellow vests movement, which confirmed our diagnosis of the elements and dynamics of a popular citizens’ revolution that explodes the established frameworks. The yellow vests, too, were the target of massive demonization, and we were the only force, including among trade union and left-wing ones, to have always defended that movement, when the dominant media and indeed many intellectuals from the left wing of the middle classes wanted to dismiss it as antisemitic, racist, and anti-migrant.

The same goes with the symbolism of the police demonstration at the National Assembly. Rather like a committee of victims from January 6, 2021, in the United States, you had police union activists saying it’s necessary to break the limits of the constitution. Aurélie Trouvé, who was a driving force in the Union Populaire and its parliament, told us how she saw that we were literally the only force that not only didn’t attend the demonstration — [Green presidential candidate Yannick] Jadot and [the Communist Party’s Fabien] Roussel were there — but publicly stood up and defended the fact that we weren’t going to.

I think it was clarifying for others to see how such fundamental things — the rule of law, the separation of powers, basic freedoms — are being completely abandoned, and to see that we chose the right side.

David Broder

Small center-left parties scored poorly, and Mélenchon rallied most of the whole social-ecological camp. But in 2017, too, he was the top left-wing presidential candidate, but you found it harder to find success at other levels — you elected seventeen MPs that year, but in regional and local elections there wasn’t so much progress. This also points to a problem of territorial rootedness. So what’s different this time that now you’re even talking about seeking a parliamentary majority?

Danièle Obono

The difference is the five years in between and the experience we’ve gained. We don’t deny that there are weaknesses, including in terms of rootedness. But our record in intermediate elections [in between presidential contests] should also be assessed in the wider context of a relatively new political movement competing with parties that’ve been around for fifty, sixty years. That matters a lot in local and regional elections; in the 2019 European contest, it was even more difficult, because our position was too against the current relative to the kind of voters who even turn out for that election. Moreover, even if parties like the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains did hold on in intermediate elections, that has not stopped the fundamental political crisis (there was massive abstention) or their tendency toward decline.

In this presidential contest, we sought to reach the runoff, or even win. We built on our strong points. But we also see the need to combine the problems of the working-class neighborhoods of the main cities and those in rural areas that have similar problems. We can see that there are some sectors where we are weaker.

I think the Union Populaire and its parliament had a success at the level of political clarification. It’s also important because of its size and direct, concrete links with sectors in struggle. In a way, this is a form of laying down roots.

In the second round, neither Macron or Le Pen are responding to the democratic and social crisis and the emergencies we face. So there is also this objective material element as well as the subjective factor, of the experience and hindsight we’ve built up. We have a collective framework that has been tested — with our parliamentary group — but also France Insoumise as an organizational movement. I think that it has shown its plasticity and its capacity to mobilize, and— even if with limits and fluctuations —this presidential campaign was also a strong point for us.

Compared to 2017, we have the record of our legislators, in the National Assembly as well as in the EU parliament. And while back then we were still dealing with the old parties’ parliamentary cohorts, this time there is a much stronger three-way division of the political field. You know the work of Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, who speak of a bourgeois bloc [uniting the center-left and center-right fractions of the bourgeoisie]: if that may have seemed theoretical, we’ve seen it take shape behind Macron, and in this election we formed this opposed popular bloc, based on the working and middle classes. For us, that’s a real achievement.

David Broder

Before the first round, calls for left unity seemed aimed at preventing Mélenchon from standing, though some figures — for instance, the Communist MP Sébastien Jumel and some people close to Sandrine Rousseau’s wing of the Greens — did side with your campaign. Now you’ve written open letters to the Greens and Communists seeking talks ahead of June’s parliamentary elections. What do you think is to be gained from this — and can you together form a popular bloc?

Danièle Obono

We know that this is not yet a bloc that has coalesced in a strong way. It is a vote and an election with its particular coordinates: the danger of Zemmour and Le Pen and the anger toward Macron. In this election, we were able to gather those things together. But now the first round has passed, the parameters aren’t the same, including for the parliamentary elections.

We have an interest in maintaining this center of gravity on the radical left. To do that, we also need other forces to rally to this pole, while also reducing as much as possible the space for reformist temptations or compromises. The fact that we didn’t choose to include the Parti Socialiste, or at least its leadership, reflects that: it isn’t worth seeking an alliance with them. With the Communists, things are maybe a little simpler. As for the Greens, they may have an interest in responding and discussing with us, though Jadot’s position so far has not been that.

We don’t want to create a power dynamic where we crush everyone else. But it is a fundamental condition that our program should remain the center of gravity. For only with a position of clarity will it be possible to have popular credibility and take a clear stance against Macron — as against anyone who would adapt to the system and compromise with him.

So the interest [in seeking unity with these forces] is a practical one on the ground — it’s better not to have competing candidacies — but also at the level of substance, on the question of strategy, it is clarifying because it forces everyone to take a position.

David Broder

The Union Populaire and its parliament, which helped develop Mélenchon’s program, included many figures who weren’t part of France Insoumise previously. If you want to succeed in intermediate elections, does it not need to become more structured, with a more organized form?

Danièle Obono

The last five years as a movement haven’t always been easy, but this form has also shown its strong points. It’s not the case that France Insoumise isn’t structured — but it doesn’t have a fixed form. It was the main framework that allowed for this campaign to happen — we couldn’t have done it without France Insoumise’s action groups and militants.

Union Populaire has a dynamic and we need a way to keep that going. But I also believe that the fact we didn’t have a party form also allowed us to create a space that those people could take part in [who might not have otherwise]. France Insoumise has its own leaders who will not necessarily be the candidates, or not them alone, because we want people from Union Populaire to stand, too. If we have a group elected to the National Assembly under the banner of Union Populaire with 50 or 100 or 200 MPs, it will have to pull on new levers. But I think that, at this stage, after the first round and with the parliamentary elections ahead of us, the Union Populaire has the necessary infrastructure. The important thing is to have the appropriate apparatus for the task at hand, rather than build a new party.

David Broder

In some neighborhoods, Jean-Luc Mélenchon won a majority vote in the first round, so clearly there you can hope to do well in the parliamentary elections. But how do you turn the vote for him into something more enduring?

Danièle Obono

We have a lot of work to do to ensure that the vote of working-class neighborhoods is reflected in the movement and in its candidates. That’s not only about putting a person from those neighborhoods up as the candidate but a way of rooting the vote there, and there clearly is a problem of representation.

I also believe that Jean-Luc Mélenchon remains an essential reference point for the movement. Some people [on the Left] believed and made calculations on the basis that — as he had said — this was his last campaign. But I think that it’s a mistake to see the post-presidential-election period as a post-Mélenchon period. The part of the electorate who came out for us were responding to a call that came from Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

David Broder

In Britain, too, we heard a lot from people who claimed to be “socialists but not for Corbyn,” finding him too “divisive,” who then more or less immediately embraced the neoliberal right wing of the party.

Danièle Obono

That’s why I would say that we have also learned a lot from the different movements. During the last five years, we were often told that Jean-Luc Mélenchon had an ego problem. But the argument was really about the clarity of ideas and strategic vision.

Clearly, the public personas of Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon could hardly be more different — though I know they are both very nice guys. And what was striking in the British case was how, despite how soft-spoken he is, Corbyn was subject to this same kind of “Mélenchonization,” with the same attempt to make him into a monster. It was interesting because it showed that it was nothing to do with their personalities. It showed that the problem isn’t that Mélenchon said “La République c’est moi” or that he speaks too loudly or defiantly.

No, the problem is the perceived danger he poses to those who defend the system, in particular the dominant media and the ruling classes. They then use that to build a media characterization that then crystallizes the [negative] perceptions among part of the middle class, whom I call the aesthetic left, for whom an idealistic, capitalist-shaped self-representation matters more than actual content.

I don’t think you can simply swap someone else in and get [a different reaction from them]. And I don’t think that anyone else could have done the work that Mélenchon has, including because of his experience. It’s not that he did it all alone. But he is also someone who has a compass of political clarity, who manages to transmit that to others and to drive the creation of a collective project. So he is an asset for the future.