Jean-Luc Mélenchon Is Fighting to Be France’s Last President

Emmanuel Macron claimed that France was missing a “king figure” — then spent five years ruling it like a monarch. His record has fueled Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s pledge to get rid of the presidency entirely and rebuild French democracy from the bottom up.

French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon casts his vote this morning in the first round of the national election in Marseille, France. (Jeremy Suykur / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In Toulouse on April 3, in Jean Luc Mélenchon’s last open-air rally of the campaign, a man held an enormous colorful sign that read, “For the Sixth Republic.” The existing republican order, the fifth in France’s postrevolutionary history, had come to its natural end, schoolteacher Damien told me. It is “way too monarchical, way too autocratic,” he said. “We might as well proclaim a Third Empire!”

Flore, who brought a sign made by her nine-year-old daughter, said that part of Mélenchon’s appeal was that he knew how to take good influences from wherever they came. The Référendum d’initiative citoyenne proposal — allowing citizens to propose legislation if they can collect enough signatures for a referendum — was inspired by the Revolución Ciudadano in Ecuador, she explained.

Mélenchon had first formally elaborated what the Sixth Republic could mean in 2010, when he wrote a short book whose titled could be translated as Get them all out! Quick, the Citizens’ Revolution. “The Citizens’ Revolution,” Mélenchon wrote, “is the concept proposed in Ecuador by Rafael Correa during the 2006 presidential election, which he won. This revolution was first of all constitutional. It gave by referendum full powers to the National Constituent Assembly.” This meant, Mélenchon explains, a citizens’ revolution in “institutions, social relations, and the dominant culture.”

The concept of citizenship is essential to this strategy — and is something that Mélenchon sees has been undermined in France. “I use the intellectual definition of citizenship,” he emphasizes. “Being capable of enunciating not what’s good for yourself but what’s good for all.”

“What I’ve observed in revolutionary countries is that most people don’t enter into a movement for ideological motives, or to realize a particular [political] program,” he insists. Rather, movements emerge to sort out “concrete problems that the great and powerful have definitively proven incapable of settling.”

“The revolutions of our time,” he concludes, “have a social fuel and a democratic motor.”

A Wartime Constitution

But in France’s Fifth Republic, the people are not the sovereign. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle came to power in the context of the Algerian Civil War. His supporters, among them a group of military officers in French-colonized Algeria, believed he was the only one who could keep Algeria French. He was swept to power under the threat of a coup d’état, spearheaded by a putsch involving officers in Algiers. At one point, plans were made to land paratroopers in Paris and overthrow the government. Instead, parliament stood aside and invested de Gaulle with the power to govern by decree for six months before he produced his new constitution. The text of the new constitution was written hurriedly, then presented to the public to vote on its ratification just one month later. Worried by what they believed to be the democratic instability and excesses of the Fourth Republic, the drafters of the 1958 constitution sought to limit the power of the legislature. To accomplish this, they made the president the supreme sovereign of the country, with the power not just to approve and enforce laws but also to draft them. The only crime he could be charged with under the constitution was high treason.

I spoke with Raquel Garrido, a close advisor to Mélenchon and mainstay of the popular television show Balance ton post! A lawyer by profession, she’s also a regional councilor in the Île-de-France region that includes Paris.

“In constitutional law we talk about ‘responsibility’ when the person who holds the executive power is responsible for the exercise of their power before another power, most often a legislative power,” Garrido told me.

“In France, there’s criminal immunity for the president of the republic for the acts he executes while president. It’s this which explains, for example, why Nicolas Sarkozy can’t be tried or still less convicted for, for example, cheating in [his presidential election campaigns].” This is different from the “political immunity” that the president has. “In France,” says Garrido, “the president isn’t accountable before any authority, [nor] before the parliament, as in all other parliamentary models.”

Does there exist an impeachment process in the constitution of the Fifth Republic?

“The answer is no. But there exists one article, in theory. It’s called destitution, but it’s for very serious cases . . . and it’s never [been used], it’s impossible to implement.”

This wasn’t the case during the Fourth Republic. “It was an invention of the Fifth [Republic],” Garrido explained. “France’s history, since the departure of the monarchy, has seen moments of democratic advancements, and then moments of retreat.”

“Today there is a current of the extreme-right in France that is very hostile to the idea of popular sovereignty. . . . When you look at the supporters of Zemmour, for example, it’s all the royalist camp.”

The End of the Presidential Monarchy

The conflict between monarchy and democracy is a hallmark of Mélenchon’s rhetoric. The past five years of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency have only provided more fodder for this theme.

In 2015, Macron, then economy minister in François Hollande’s government, gave an interview where he talked about an “absence” in French politics. This was, said Macron, “the figure of the king, which I fundamentally don’t think the French people wanted dead. . . . Since then, we’ve tried to refill this void by placing other figures: these were the Napoleonic and Gaullist moments. The rest of the time, French democracy doesn’t fill this space.”

As president, Macron has pursued what Mélenchon calls an “authoritarian drift.” In 2020, when the French government ordered a lockdown for a second time in the face of rising COVID-19 infections, Mélenchon wrote a blog post denouncing “the addiction of our society to permanent states of exception,” highlighting the specter of terrorism and public health emergencies. This was particularly offensive given potential democratic alternatives like massive investments in rebuilding the capacity of French hospitals, as well as using the power of the state to organize methods of containing the pandemic like case tracking and financial support for sick people being isolated.

The past three years under Macron, Mélenchon charged, had seen the fastest reduction of liberties in a long time. This was not just the product of Macron’s actions, Mélenchon concluded — though he was a particularly adept practitioner at it — but the “heart of economic liberalism,” a system that sees human beings like pig, cows, and chickens, nothing but “batteries, exclusively occupied with producing and consuming.”

When Mélenchon spoke in the northern city of Lille on April 5, he called for an end to the “presidential monarchy.” The crowd roared in approval. “There is no democracy without democrats. There is no Republic without republicans,” Mélenchon declared.

The Constituent Assembly

The Union Populaire, the movement launched out of Mélenchon’s France Insoumise vehicle for the 2022 election, has a very similar program to his 2017 campaign. It even shares the same name — l’Avenir en Commun, or “our common future” — though it has been expanded. In the most recent edition, the first section explores the Sixth Republic and proposes sweeping changes to, and the replacement of, the country’s institutions.

The solution, then, is a constituent assembly — a democratic process where the people write a new constitution. Mélenchon’s plan is to establish this assembly by calling a referendum under Article 11 of the current constitution.

That referendum will decide how the process is set up, including the constituent assembly’s own deliberative process. After two years, the constitution it produces will be submitted to the people again for a referendum. If the people reject the constitution, the assembly will continue its work. The assembly would also bar any legislator from the two old legislative bodies (the National Assembly and the Senate) from any involvement. Then, after the new constitution is settled, members of the constituent assembly would also be barred from running as candidates in any subsequent election.

“The Fifth Republic has had its time. Abstention has become the majority in most elections. A democracy without the people isn’t one at all,” proclaims the program.

The fight for the Sixth Republic, and the new constitution that will come with it, is a fight for a re-democratization of France. Today polls predict record-high levels of abstention — almost a third of voters say they won’t cast a ballot.

I talked with Mathis, originally from Rennes, who was selling programs in the lobby outside of the hall in Lille. He’d been in Chile in 2019, when a powerful social movement opposed the conservative president Sebastián Piñera in the streets. One of the outcomes of that campaign was the calling of a constituent assembly around the time of the 2021 presidential election. This was despite the hostility the constituent assembly faced from the president, who had only granted its existence under intense pressure, and the media, which questioned its legitimacy. For Mathis, the point of the Sixth Republic is that people become “democratic actors every day,” opposing today’s “sclerotic public life.”

Garrido, who visited Chile during the development of that country’s constituent assembly, said that the difference with an assembly under a Mélenchon presidency would be that it would have the government’s full support. In Chile, “they had a president hostile to the constituent assembly,” she said. “The main difference is, we’d have an ally in the [presidency.]”

One of the centerpieces of the new constitution that Mélenchon would champion is the right to recall elected officials if they fail to follow through on their mandate. On April 6, Mélenchon’s spokesman, MP Alexis Corbière, spoke to about two hundred people in a meeting hall in Bobigny, a suburb north of Paris. “The Fifth Republic fabricates a system where you can govern without the people,” he said. The reason abstention is so high, he said, was because the people have no right to recall their representatives when they betray them. “During the French Revolution, this right existed!”

The National Assembly, he said, was not a place where the people really had a role in governing. Instead, deputies like him used the forum to be tribunes for another system. “If we don’t change these institutions . . . the worst is to come,” he said.

François Hollande, the Socialist president from 2012 to 2017, came to power promising to be the “enemy of finance.” Instead, he pushed through the notorious “El Khomri law” supported by the employers’ association MEDEF, which rewrote France’s labor code to the detriment and anger of many workers. In 2015, he perfectly encapsulated the reality of the French Fifth Republic: “An unpopular president can operate with great capacity, with great liberty . . . it’s that which is the difference between our institutions and those of our neighboring countries.”

That is the fruit of the institutions of the Fifth Republic. As Mélenchon faces the polls for likely the last time today, France has a chance to completely sweep those institutions away and replace them with new ones

“Mélenchon,” Garrido, who has been by his side for over a decade, told me confidently, “wants to be the next and the final president of the Fifth Republic.”