Jean-Luc Mélenchon Has Shown How to Build a Radical, Broad Coalition
Most of the last decade’s left-populist insurgents failed to create lasting alternatives to neoliberalized social democracy. But Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise bucked the trend — and did it through years of work building real, popular roots.
With France’s parliamentary elections under two weeks away, Jean-Luc Mélenchon looks in a stronger position than ever. Where other left-populist challengers around the West have struggled to build lasting organization, or even to repeat their initial electoral scores, his France Insoumise movement has established itself as a key force in national politics. In April’s presidential contest, he scored 22 percent support, and ahead of National Assembly elections on June 12 and 19, he heads a broad-left coalition — the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES) — polling up to 30 percent support.
If such a development was unforeseeable even a few months ago, this is also not the sudden breakthrough of an unknown force. The ideological and organizational base around Mélenchon has been built over fifteen years, including through robust opposition to established social liberalism. One of its foundational acts was the battle for the “no” vote in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty. After the French public rejected the constitution — showing the popular opposition to a project backed by both center left and center right, but which was then mostly implemented anyway — the forces gathered around Mélenchon, then on the left wing of the Socialist Party, to build a political alternative.
From the creation of the Left Party in 2009, through the Left Front campaign in 2012 and France Insoumise in 2017, these forces have worked with the aim of finally reaching the heights of the state apparatus. Yet along the way, they have faced a hard task confronting a well-established force ready to do anything to maintain its hegemony: namely, neoliberalized social democracy. Represented by the Socialist Party and the presidency of François Hollande from 2012 to 2017, it has always sought to retain the left-wing parties as junior and subordinate allies, as it has more or less successfully done with both the Communists and Greens. Especially given its residual local-level strength, this limited the possibilities for any left-wing alternative building outside this social-liberal base.
Yet with the fallout from April’s presidential election, we see Mélenchon’s real achievement. Elsewhere in Europe, established center-left parties have succeeded despite everything in fending off any more radical challengers — notably in Spain, Portugal, and Germany. Yet here France Insoumise that has created its own electoral space and managed to build a credible force to outcompete social liberalism. In April, Mélenchon’s score dwarfed those for the Green Yannick Jadot (4.6 percent) and the once mighty Socialists (1.7 percent for Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo), in turn asserting his claim to lead the Left in the coming parliamentary elections. He is now accepted by each of these long-hostile parties as their candidate for prime minister.
This also has to be contextualized in the failure of neoliberalized social democracy itself. In that election, these parties were unable to lay down political dividing lines that could resonate with society, even as many opinion polls showed that French voters considered yawning inequality and the cost of living their top-priority issues. This was the rock-solid focus of Mélenchon’s own campaign — including through a carefully costed program, endorsed by many civil-society figures — on which France Insoumise had been working since 2016.
Yet if this marks the rise of a credible radical-left alternative, the creation of NUPES — drawing the Socialist, Green, and Communist parties into Mélenchon’s program — has also encountered fierce opposition from leaders of the defeated social-liberal camp. Figures such as failed Socialist candidate Hidalgo, former president Hollande, and president of the Occitanie region Carole Delga have sharply denounced what they call an irresponsible Left led by “pro-Islamist” or “communalist” and “anti-business” elements. If elements of the Socialist Party are trying to mount a more radical turn in order to save this historic workers’ party from outright disappearance, those who led it to the point of destruction are now trying to sabotage this turn.
These shifts also take place in the context of a hardening three-way division of the French political field, both in the presidential contest and the ensuing campaign for the legislative elections. In essence, French politics is divided between the Left under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the liberal center-right bloc behind President Emmanuel Macron, and the far-right, still hegemonized by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.
This three-way division was somehow confirmed even in the runoff ballot between Macron and Le Pen: the low turnout in Macron’s favor also reflected the fact that a good half of his electorate was mainly mobilized against Le Pen rather than as an endorsement of his own program. Considering the level of abstention — 26.3 percent of the electorate, in fact the most popular single choice — only around 20 percent of registered voters actively supported the incumbent president.
This allows for the hope of a third round in which NUPES can challenge its opponents for outright victory. Nonetheless, there is also movement on the center right, today known as Les Républicains, given the weakness of the traditional right. If with his first presidential run in 2017, Macron, formerly finance minister in a Socialist-led administration, promised to bring together “both left and right,” in 2022, this recomposition of the pro-elite center is continuing yet further, bringing together both former social-democratic voters who adhered to the neoliberal project and a major part of the old right.
Crises such as the war in Ukraine, inflation, and the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are surely conducive to further polarization of the political field, and each of these three camps has its own internal divisions. But the parties that came on top in each of them in April were clear and natural answers for their respective camps, already having built up the bases of their hegemony long before the vote itself.
Model for Europe
Faced with this relatively rare case of a radical-left party formed in the 2010s and continuing to grow into the present, figures across the continent are looking to France Insoumise as an example. Podemos cofounder Pablo Iglesias tweeted that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s result was “a model for Europe.” Amid great difficulties for such forces across the EU, France Insoumise is not just one of the main actors of the political recomposition on the Left but its central pivot.
Some figures have, certainly, sought to qualify the importance of this success. For instance, during the negotiations for the parliamentary elections, some Green and Communist figures insisted that the vote for Mélenchon’s Union Populaire had been a strategic “pragmatic vote” in the hope of avoiding another Macron–Le Pen runoff more than one expressing outright support for the radical-left candidate.
Yet events since April’s contest have also shown the limits to such claims. Mélenchon did, after all, secure 7.6 million votes, and though this base may be more or less solid in its different parts, NUPES offers the possibility to consolidate them into a more organized force. Mélenchon’s campaign demonstrated that the ideas of a clean break with neoliberalism and Macron’s authoritarianism have a bedrock of support on which the parliamentary campaign can build as the other left-wing parties rally behind the essence of his program.
However, several dangers lurk, including for the Left. First is the problem of abstention, which has been growing for years, showing the resignation among those parts of the population that no longer identify with democratic institutions. In this respect, Mélenchon’s 2022 campaign can boast of having been the one that did best in attracting former abstentionists. Yet this was also counterbalanced by an opposite shift: 2017 Mélenchon voters who didn’t turn out this time. This reflects the difficulty in solidifying a base of support among a volatile electorate unconvinced that political action will really work for them.
In this sense, another remaining weakness of the radical left is its presence at the local level. Indeed, while in 2017 Mélenchon easily beat the Socialist Benoît Hamon in the presidential election, in the subsequent parliamentary elections, as well as in subsequent regional and mayoral contests, the Socialist Party has shown its residual strength in depth, whereas France Insoumise struggled to win any such intermediate-level elections. The difference, this time, is that the NUPES alliance, which has also had a prominent media presence throughout the last month on the back of Mélenchon’s campaign, offers the hope of creating an unprecedented national dynamic, also changing the balance of forces within the Left. Across the 577 constituencies, France Insoumise will have 326 candidates, the Greens 100, the Socialist Party 69, and the Communist Party 50.
A further troubling indicator for the Left comes from the continuing rise in Le Pen’s vote, and the chance of the far right making an at least moderate advance in the parliamentary elections. Especially worrying is that the far-right vote has strengthened its “social” dimension, as shown by Le Pen’s over–30 percent support among blue-collar workers and white-collar employees in the first round of the presidential election — higher scores than the Left achieved. The geography of the result also shows that the far-right vote is very well-established in the areas that have fallen victim to deindustrialization, especially in the north.
This is a challenge that France Insoumise MP François Ruffin is especially focused on. In a recent interview, he warned the movement against relying only on the gains among young and working-class voters in the major cities, insisting that progress here needs to be combined with a focus on abandoned smaller towns. Indeed, the social composition of France Insoumise’s electorate is contradictory: it makes it vulnerable in elections with high abstention rates, including the parliamentary elections (with expected turnout close to 50 percent), but also makes it relatively more difficult for other forces to eat into.
The last challenge for this new Left will be to build the foundations to confront other coming challenges, not just in the electoral arena but also at the level of social mobilization. The weakness of Macron’s real popular support, combined with his still advertised ambition to take unpopular measures to overturn France’s social model — in particular, by raising the pension age to sixty-five — could trigger further turmoil. That’s not even to mention the fallout of much wider crises, including the ones we can predict already, such as the effects of climate change and the return of ordoliberal budget restraint at the EU level.
All these events will surely test the NUPES alliance, given the heterogenous parties involved as well as the different electorates that they mobilize. The challenge for the forces led by Mélenchon is to remain a stable political compass that can orient a more organized alternative to both the liberal center right and the likes of Le Pen. We know that further crises are on their way, and that this will further demonstrate the polarization of French political life and the inability of neoliberalism to provide viable solutions. Mélenchon’s movement provides credible hope, at least, that things don’t have to be this way.