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The Rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France’s “Post-Democracy”

The new face of French populism has upended its presidential race—and perhaps the country’s future.

Trago/Stringer/Getty Images

If we were to pick a date when the long unwinding of France’s party system began, it would likely be May 29, 2005. A much-awaited constitution for the then-rapidly expanding European Union was put to the test of a referendum. The country’s two dominant parties—the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP, now known as the Republicans) and the center-left Socialist Party—came together to support the proposed constitution. This bipartisan unity was immortalized by the joint appearance on the front cover of Paris Match of UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist leader François Hollande, both calling for the treaty’s ratification. Despite the near universal support of the country’s political and media establishment, however, the fiercely fought campaign ended in a resounding victory for the “no” side, which won with nearly 55 percent of the vote.

The pursuit of a European constitution would only pick up again in 2009, with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty. When it came for ratification, however, Sarkozy, then president, bypassed a popular referendum and passed the treaty by a simple vote of parliament.

The 2005 referendum debate set the tone for the politics of the subsequent decade. The “yes” vote was sold as an embrace of globalization and openness—an endorsement of a modern France committed to the European project. That the “no” campaign boasted such supporters as Marine Le Pen of the hard-right National Front and Philippe de Villiers, a celebrity figure on the nationalist fringe, enabled the easy narrative that any and all criticism of European unification was tantamount to xenophobia and proto-fascism. Little did it matter that the opposition counted a number of establishment politicians, from conservatives fearful of losing national sovereignty, to Socialist Party leaders who saw in the proposed constitution a vast democratic deficit. They saw a potential threat to social harmony across the union: a blank check for labor deregulation and free-market reform.

Twelve years later, as France prepares for the first round of a presidential election next week, the political debate has largely clung to these terms. They have gained even greater resonance in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which, combined with vicious austerity policies dictated by Germany, plunged France, along with much of Europe, into sustained economic misery. (France’s unemployment rate remains at a staggering 10 percent.) Hollande, whose center-left government succeeded Sarkozy’s in 2012, bears a fair share of the blame, especially given the fact that Hollande campaigned on renegotiating the very treaties that Sarkozy ratified without popular consultation.

In the vacuum created by the crisis of the two establishment parties, a former Socialist economy minister and radical centrist, Emmanuel Macron, has seized the mantle of modernization and reform, hoping to reaffirm France’s faith in European integration and push through substantial supply-side economic policies. The backers of Macron across French, European, and American media—“Macron-mania,” as it’s rightly called, is an international phenomenon—could find no better foil than Marine Le Pen. Known for her smoldering denunciations of globalization and multiculturalism, she stands for everything that Macron does not.

But attempts to stick to this lovely black-and-white story have grown increasingly untenable. Indeed, the National Front may be losing its position as the dominant force in French populism thanks to the rise of a former Socialist senator, committed “alter-globalist,” and fellow advocate of the “no” vote in 2005: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon has promised, if elected, to launch a vast stimulus spending project centered on an immediate transition to a sustainable, green economy and financed through the appropriation of large swaths of private wealth. His threats to abandon the European treaties if Germany doesn’t ease up on austerity and allow for renegotiation have led many to deride him as a candidate of a “Frexit.”

In recent years, Mélenchon has been treated as something of a side show to the real theater of French politics: the steady rise of the National Front and the consolidation of an unapologetically neoliberal center. Mélenchon formally split from the Socialist Party following its defeat in the 2007 election against Sarkozy. He formed the Left Party, and has been lingering on the sidelines of French politics ever since, assembling a very loyal following, but failing to truly stake out a major position in the balance of power. All that has slowly changed over the past several months, as Mélenchon has risen to as high as 20 percent in some polls, in a deeply divided political field in which no candidate breaches 23 percent.

Undoubtedly the beneficiary of a Socialist Party in collapse (its candidate, Benoit Hamon, now fails to break the single digits), Mélenchon’s success is also due to a new electoral strategy geared towards gaining back formerly left-wing voters lured by Marine Le Pen’s nationalist message. The candidate has abandoned the symbolism of the Left Front (the electoral coalition he led in 2012) and adopted a more populist strategy, appearing as the candidate of the new movement “La France Insoumise,” or Insubmissive France. While in the past, Mélenchon’s rallies were home to a sea of red flags, the classic color of the European left, his rallies are now home first-and-foremost to the French tricolor.

At the conclusion of his March 18 rally for the foundation of a Sixth Republic, which brought over 100,000 supporters to Paris’s Place de la République, he conceded to the criticism among his supporters that he now only concludes his rallies with “The Marseillaise,” and led one round of “The Internationale.” It was, after all, the anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871.

One of the primary intellectual inspirations for Mélenchon’s new strategy is the Belgian political theorist and philosopher Chantal Mouffe. For Mouffe, who walked hand-in-hand with Mélenchon during the March 18 demonstration, the traditional left-wing playbook needs to be abandoned in favor of a new politics that assembles the totality of the “people” against the “oligarchy.” Such a strategy, she wrote in a recent Le Monde essay defending Mélenchon, is necessary in the “post-democracy” that has set in across the advanced industrial world since the 1990s.

By “post-democracy,” Mouffe means the imposition of a firm consensus by all traditional parties, despite the façade of a two-party system, in favor of neoliberal globalization. That editorialists condemn Melénchon’s denunciation of the media and the financial aristocracy is the peak of hypocrisy, Mouffe continues: “It is ironic that such a project is accused of being anti-pluralistic by its critics, as if it were not them, denying the possibility of an alternative to neoliberalism, who refuse to accept pluralism.”

The rise of a figure calling for a new constitution, the abandonment of NATO, and the radical renegotiation or abandonment of European treaties has put editorialists and competing candidates in a tail-spin. In the editorial of April 16 and 17, Le Monde lamented what it called a “national crisis of nerves,” fearing that “a majority of French citizens seem ready to throw out of the window the most elementary economic doctrines, to snub the constraints of our national debt … to take the economic markets for paper tigers.”

The right-wing Figaro has been by far the most creative in its fear-mongering and red-baiting, calling the far-left candidate “Maximilien Ilitch Mélenchon” (combining the names of Maximilien Robespierre and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin) and the “French Chavez.”

But the candidate’s admiration for Hugo Chavez, and other South American populists like Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, is no secret. He even went on a highly publicized visit to Venezuela in 2012 that earned the derision of the entire Parisian establishment. Indeed, the strategy and example of South American populism—like other nationalist movements across the so-called “global south”—form an essential part of Mélenchon’s intellectual and political development and have entirely nurtured his conception of the future of democratic politics.

Ultimately, Mélenchon sees a convergence between the wealthy societies of Europe and the global north and the poor societies of the global south. As Mouffe wrote, “[Mélenchon’s] type of populism has until now been more evident in countries, like those in South America, that were profoundly oligarchical. ... Mélenchon’s interest in the Latin American political experience comes from his conviction that its lessons can help us understand the tasks that we are confronted with.”

Latin American populists and Mélenchon share not only an opposition to neoliberal governance, but a common vision of alternative global economic governance. Centuries of direct or indirect rule by European powers had brought the economies of these southern states within a global industrial system in which they could scarcely compete with the advanced industrial states of the north. Unequal exchange led many to lament the problem of “neo-imperialism.” Economists such as the Argentine Raul Prébisch even called for something like global reparations to enable the planned industrial development of southern economies and their freedom from the overbearing hand of northern multinational corporations and banks.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon at a March 18 rally for a Sixth Republic in Paris.
Eric Fefeberg/Getty Images

The echoes of the current north-south divide in Europe are unmistakable, where left-wing populism inspired by the Latin American example has surged across the continent’s southern periphery.

Before a crowd of some 70,000 supporters assembled around Marseille’s old port on April 9, Mélenchon walked to the stage with an olive branch in his lapel. Days after the United States’s missile strike of a Syrian air base, which was embraced by the French, German, and British governments, ushering in the return of chilly relations between the United States and Russia, the candidate bellowed into the microphone: “I am the candidate of peace.”

The only thing that can arrest what Mélenchon sees as a slide into general, unending war is the formation of a new alter-globalist alliance. He sees the seeds of such an alliance across the anti-austerity states of Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain), in the ring of left-wing governments in South America, and in the upsurge of populism that shook the Middle East during the Arab Spring. The pitch that Mélenchon has given to French voters was, in fact, nurtured by the language of protests in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began. “Le dégagisme”—which roughly translates to “Go away!”—has become a buzzword over the past year, with the candidate calling for a “citizen’s revolution” to push out France’s financial and media aristocracy.

The candidate’s 2014 bestseller, L’Ere du Peuple, might as well be taken as the manifesto of global populism. What Mélenchon sees is nothing short of a breakdown of the American-led neoliberal global order. First and foremost, the doubling of the world’s population since the midcentury proves the existence of limits of our market system. The thought of extending the Western standard of living to a global population of over eight billion individuals is a dead end and would push the world to the ecological brink.

The waves of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores are the victims of a “forced exile,” Mélenchon told his supporters in Marseille. They flee violence produced by wars, climate change, competition over scarce resources, and the unsettling of local economies by their absorption within the global market. The leveling of the world economy will lead ineluctably to a global race-to-the-bottom, he said, as workers in developed countries are forced to compete with foreign workers who can produce the same goods at a fraction of the price.

What is needed, Mélenchon argues, is nothing short of a new global economic regime. The hallmark of Mélenchon’s economic plan, and the glue sealing together a hypothetical “alter-globalist” alliance, would be what he terms “ecological planning” and “protectionism with solidarity.” The candidate calls for an immediate transition to a green economy, with the re-localization of production and a revolution in sustainable agriculture. One of the central tenants of the new constitution, which would result from a constituent assembly that Mélenchon would call upon arriving in office, would be the so-called “green rule”: the codification of ecological sustainability as the law of the land and an essential component of modern citizenship.

The gut reaction has been to dismiss Mélenchon as both a catastrophist and the source of a coming catastrophe. As the American historian Timothy Snyder has warned of radical politics on either end of the spectrum: “Both the Left and the Right tend to fear order rather than its destruction or absence.” But Mélenchon’s supporters say he is one of the great utopians of our time, a thinker who can rejuvenate what currently passes for moderate, respectable dogma before it’s too late. Populism has been largely understood as the death knell of globalization. It may very well be the force that redefines and revives it.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Bernard-Henri Lévy had declared, “If Mélenchon is elected, I will leave France.” We regret the error.