Jean-Luc Mélenchon Is Popular Because He Confronts the Powerful

For years, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has faced endless accusations of “divisiveness” and “extremism.” Today, his left-wing movement is more popular than ever — and it’s because it didn’t shy away from taking on French elites.

French leftist La France Insoumise (LFI) party leader, member of parliament, and leader of left-wing coalition NUPES Jean-Luc Melenchon delivers a speech during a campaign visit in Villeurbanne, central-eastern France, on June 4, 2022. (Olivier Chassignole / AFP via Getty Images)

With his coalition nudging ahead in the first round of France’s parliamentary elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon might have been expected to strike a consensual note. Over half of tomorrow’s runoffs set Mélenchon’s left-wing allies against the supporters of neoliberal Emmanuel Macron, who was re-elected president not even two months ago.

Yet while Mélenchon hopes that the vote will impose a “cohabitation” — a government in which he is prime minister, despite Macron being president — his campaign hasn’t sought compromise with the incumbent. Rather, the France Insoumise leader insists that this election is about two fundamentally conflicting visions of humanity’s future.

Telling of Mélenchon’s message was a rally in Toulouse on Tuesday night, in which he told his audience that it was a time to break with the “bankrupt” neoliberal order. “Neoliberalism is a dangerous system, unable to correct its failings, because they make it richer.” From COVID-19 to climate disaster, it always finds new avenues for profit for the few.

The problem, he insisted, is that capitalist short-termism is incompatible with human and natural life: “capital constantly strives to dominate the long term through the short term, the accumulation of vast fortunes through short-term profit.” Conversely, his movement’s program of ecological planning would work to “harmonize the rhythms of production with nature.” To impose rational control on production rather than the current chaos would demand an “extraordinary” measure: “we will nationalize time, an invisible raw material.”

Certainly, this rhetoric is lofty compared to the usual stuff of US or British political debate. But it isn’t so common here, either.

True, French TV has long-form political chat shows without parallel in English-speaking countries — you could even watch Mélenchon interrogated on French identity, policing, the economy, and animal welfare for over three hours, prime time. Yet the France Insoumise leader stands out for his ability to connect questions seemingly far from everyday concerns (e.g. the effect of noise pollution on natural life) to more prosaic, material issues such as free time and opposition to Macron’s bid to increase the pension age to sixty-five.

In this lies the quality of France Insoumise as a political movement: a fearless defense of the material interests of the majority, connected to an inspiring alternative vision of what values should govern production and social life. With its rising electoral strength, it is a project that has, through many battles, forced its way onto the mainstream agenda.

From the Margins to Hegemony

Doubtless, even mainstream French social democrats have often used radical rhetoric to mobilize their activists, only to then pursue pro-business policies. François Mitterrand, on whose team Mélenchon worked early in his career, once spoke of a “rupture” with capitalism, but then as president in the early 1980s mounted an austerity turn. After the 2008 financial crisis, François Hollande called finance his enemy, only to spend his presidency tearing up labor rights, indeed with the young Macron as his economy minister.

Yet the history of France Insoumise since its founding in 2016 has been deeply shaped by conflict with the political establishment and the socially tinged liberalism represented by the old Parti Socialiste. Having been a leader of the victorious “no” camp in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty (a document which was implemented regardless of the referendum’s result), Mélenchon left the Socialists in 2008 to begin building a new political force outside of the mainstream, claiming to stand for a trampled-upon French democracy.

France Insoumise’s path hasn’t always been easy. It has often had conflictual relations with more established left-wing parties with stronger roots in local government, who have rejected Mélenchon’s bid for hegemony. Yet in a political system mainly organized around the elections to the presidency — a position France Insoumise seeks to abolish — his runs in 2012, 2017 and 2022 have seen growing popular support for his program. With his rise from 11.1, to 19.6, to 22 percent, he has continually defied claims that he is simply too “divisive,” proving able to rally large layers of the popular classes and habitual non-voters at the same time as consolidating much of the Left.

The result is that, even as the ruling party’s attacks on his supposed “Islamo-leftism” and “extremism” have intensified, Mélenchon has become the recognized leader of one of three major political camps in France, rivaling both Macron’s supporters and Le Pen’s far right. Before April’s presidential election, this seemed far from guaranteed: many milquetoast progressives sought a “unity candidate” without Mélenchon’s hard edges.

Indeed, even after he had begun to surge in the polls, the representatives of smaller soft-left parties, notably Greens’ Yannick Jadot, devoted much of their campaigns to denouncing him as “soft on Putin” or, as some Socialists had it, “anti-business.”

France Insoumise’s achievement, especially with that latest presidential bid, has been to outmobilize these parties to such a degree that they are now compelled to follow its leadership. The Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES) which they formed in May is not just an adding together of party logos, as if pooling their programs or meeting on a lowest-common-denominator basis.

Rather, well over half of its candidates are from France Insoumise, and its program is overwhelmingly based on the one on which Mélenchon ran in April. Especially telling of this boldness is the explicit commitment to disobey European Union treaties insofar as they hamper a left-wing government’s action.

Dividing Lines

There has been dissent against this course, including from the likes of ex-president Hollande. Though last Sunday, just eleven of the “dissident” soft-left candidates running against NUPES even qualified for the second round.

We can equally imagine that, even if NUPES does beat current projections and achieve a narrow majority in parliament, the parties who found themselves forced to make an electoral pact with Mélenchon will be much less willing to follow his lead in moments of confrontation, especially at the European level.

We have seen established divides on the Left resurfacing even during NUPES’s campaign, especially after the police shooting of a driver who failed to stop for a check. While Mélenchon condemned “the death penalty for failing to comply” and the police unions who defended the incident, allies like Communist Fabien Roussel strongly rejected his comment that “the police kill.”

Last year, France Insoumise was the only party, including its current NUPES allies, not to attend protests by police unions outside the National Assembly. It also has far stronger positions against Islamophobia and racism in general.

While France Insoumise has often been criticized for the insularity of its leadership group, lack of internal democracy, and unwillingness to meet other left-wing forces as equals, this is also connected to one of its strengths: a constant focus on its political program, rather than pluralism as an end in itself.

While its rhetorical emphases have changed over the years, it continues to reiterate transformative aims such as abolishing the presidency, leaving NATO, and — if not threatening to leave the EU — insisting that its program will override European rules.

This is also reflected in its resilience faced with near-universal media attacks, often as intense as those faced by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. While Corbyn was largely undermined by figures within his own party — a Labour machine and group of MPs which he never tried to purge or replace — France Insoumise has proven much less compromising with its critics.

Upon Corbyn’s defeat in 2019, Mélenchon strongly criticized his attempt to “reach common ground” with his rivals on issues like Brexit and hyped-up antisemitism claims, when the Labour right sought only to destroy him. He also had a lot to say about his own approach: “Building your political reasoning in function of an internal balance within your party is a road doomed to defeat,” Mélenchon insisted. “The problems as well as the solutions are in the popular masses, their expectations, their will, their needs. That is where Corbyn should have gone to get his instructions. He wanted to appease the mighty — in vain.” His weakness standing up to his opponents, Mélenchon continued, had disillusioned his potential supporters.

Working-Class Left

In this sense, France Insoumise has already achieved something that other left-populist movements have not, by using its popular base to outflank the established party machines. In Spain, Podemos is today a junior partner to the old Socialist Party; in the United States, a clutch of democratic socialist members of Congress are a radical voice within Joe Biden’s Democratic Party; and in Britain, the Labour Left has been reduced to near-silence by Keir Starmer’s leadership. France Insoumise is also today in an alliance with the remnants of the Parti Socialiste, yet it is Mélenchon’s movement that politically dominates the entire broad-left space.

This has certainly been polarizing, with architects of French social liberalism such as former president Hollande keen to damn NUPES as “communalist,” “pro-Russian,” and “anti-business.” Yet this polarization hasn’t only worked in one direction.

Particularly remarkable has been the way in which France Insoumise’s strength has had a magnetic pull on some political leaders and media outlets that might not have been expected to follow its lead. Such are the cases of 2007 Parti Socialiste candidate Segolène Royal, or even the newspaper Libération, who have sporadically defended Mélenchon against attacks from the Macron camp.

Indeed, only in this sense — the assertion of a more radical leadership — can we say that the French Left has really grown stronger.

Last Sunday, NUPES took 26 percent of votes, narrowly coming first place nationwide. Yet this was actually less than the divided broad-left in 2017 (28 percent) never mind 2007 and 2012 (36 and 40 percent, respectively). The difference is the political program for which this Left stands, and what voters it seeks to represent. While the Socialists and (on a smaller scale) Greens who dominated the Left before the 2008 crisis saw their electorates tilt ever more sharply toward the upper-middle classes, France Insoumise is more transversal, with notable spikes of support among the unemployed and the young.

Many uphill struggles remain: the first-round saw Le Pen’s candidates build their blue-collar electorate, especially outside the major cities where France Insoumise is strongest. Mélenchon’s movement still lacks organizational depth, able to sink territorial roots and mobilize outside of major national elections. Breaking what had risked becoming the duopoly of the neoliberal center and the far right, France Insoumise has put transformative politics back on the agenda. Yet winning a quarter or a third of the vote in an election with only 50 percent turnout is not a solid basis for far-reaching social change.

Win or lose on Sunday, the progress made thus far is surely a step in the right direction. The next parliament will see a massive influx of left-wing MPs, hopefully including candidates such as Rachel Kéké, the chambermaid who led a 22-month hotel strike, or Stéphane Ravacley, a baker who mounted an 11-day hunger strike to stop his Guinean apprentice being deported. But if this change in the face of French politics was unpredictable even a few months ago, it didn’t come from nowhere. Its foundations were laid by France Insoumise’s political combativity, determination to stand up to the powerful, and refusal to let hostile forces have a veto on its leaders or political agenda.

For years, France Insoumise has constantly been accused, within and outside the Left, of being a dogmatic, sectarian, dinosaur force. Yet the political resilience of Mélenchon’s movement helped show voters that it really meant what it said. If its wave of popularity continues to rise on Sunday, it can start turning its program into reality.