Shrewd Tortoise

It only lasted about an hour, but it was an exhilarating, fluttery, serotinous hour, when anything seemed possible, including an inebriating reversal of fortune that would leave all the overconfident pollsterati, sequacious, subrident and shiny journalists, jabbering, sententiary commentators and imperious editorialists with a thick, yellow slime oozing down their faces. It was 11:00pm; all the candidates had given their speeches, representatives of all the main parties had sidestepped their defeats or humble-bragged about their successes and laid down their markers for the second round of the election, and the France 2 special electoral programme was beginning to wind down, the presenters clearly keen to head back to their loft apartments. The scenario that had been prepared for months – a head-to-head between the forces of light and darkness – was in place and seemingly locked down. And, yet, gradually, mild panic began to afflict their faces, as fissures emerged in the edifice: the projected vote share of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of Union Populaire (the new electoral avatar of La France Insoumise) was rising again! As it edged forward, like an old nag that, instead of collapsing in exhaustion, picked up a leisurely trot in the last few metres before the finishing line, the vote seemed within touching distance – 0.88% at one heart-stopping point – of overtaking the squamose Marine Le Pen. And the definitive results from the big cities such as Paris and Marseilles were still not in yet! Crowds of UP militants, especially the smoking, singing, adjuring youth, refused to abandon their stations outside the Cirque d’Hiver, where the radical left candidate had pitched his camp that night, as if, by continuing to occupy the space, they were protecting the flickering flame from being extinguished.

But it was not to be. By midnight, the bubbles in the champagne glass had been transfigured into those generated by an Alka-Seltzer tablet. The gap between the far-right and radical-left candidates widened once more, 23.15% to 21.95%, although they remained tantalisingly close (with Le Pen ahead by only 420,000 votes). The ‘mouse hole’ that Mélenchon had claimed as his window of opportunity to break through to the second round – thereby purifying the fetid air of racist, Islamophobic and law-and-order tropes, and repolarising the following two weeks into an electrifying left/right contest – had proven to be just a few millimetres too narrow. It was as if Netflix had cancelled a second season of its French politics series and chosen instead, out of sheer lassitude, to screen a re-run of the 2017 one.

Supernatural powers of restraint and self-discipline would have been inadequate to assuage the feelings of rage and frustration coursing through the mind of a UP voter when confronted by the evident cause of this historic missed opportunity. The Mélenchon vote towered magisterially over all the other runts on the left. Serious differences of electorate and programme could possibly justify the existence of the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot (4.63%), or the two Trotskyist candidates (0.77% for Philippe Poutou of Nouveau parti anticapitaliste and 0.56% for Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte ouvrière). The indiscernible vote share for the ventricumbent Anne Hidalgo of the Parti socialiste (1.75%), plumbing scoriform depths unreached by even the worst results of the Fifth Republic for the centre left – care of Benoît Hamon in 2017 (6.36%) – could inspire nothing more than a mixture of contempt and a sneer of Schadenfreude. But the real piece of gravel in the shoe, digging its secodont edges into the leftist’s sole, was the candidacy of Fabien Roussel of the Parti communiste français, with its at once picayune and ample 2.28%.

This was a party that had twice been in alliance with Mélenchon in 2012 and 2017, which had virtually no programmatic differences with him (support for nuclear power excepted), whose electorate overlapped almost exactly with his. All the arguments in favour of an autonomous PCF candidate (Mélenchon’s astringency in the face of the Communists’ death-embrace alliances with the PS in order to save their dwindling seats in legislative and municipal elections – ‘You are death and nothingness’, he had texted to Pierre Laurent of the CP – and the supposed boost the campaign would give the party) were either specious or self-deluding. But, as if this were not enough, Roussel ran a campaign which chose to accentuate all the most backward and social-chauvinist elements in franchouillard left culture: from attacks on ‘le wokisme’ and ‘communitarianism’ to full-throated defences of hunting, private car use, and the ‘wine / red meat / cheese’ essence of French identity, all vibrating to the comforting thrum of ‘the right to happiness for both workers and bosses’.

Not surprisingly, this unabashed and cloddish rush to embrace Gallic ‘gammonism’ attracted compliments from all the wrong quarters, from the head of the MEDEF employers’ federation and Valérie Pécresse of the right wing Les Républicains, to the abject media philosopher and liberal establishment stooge Raphaël Enthoven, a bonsaï Bernard-Henri Lévy who had famously declared that, faced with a hypothetical run-off between Mélenchon and Le Pen, he would ‘rather Trump than Chávez’ and was, in a bizarre exercise of encanaillement salonard, to produce an interview book with Roussel the scaramouch.

And yet, considered soberly, the results achieved on 10 April by Union Populaire were consequential and, if consolidated and built upon systematically (a big if), could open up new horizons for the French radical left in the immediate future. They are all the more arresting when considered against the backdrop of a conjuncture that did not augur at all well for this current. The sequence initiated by the breakthrough of April 2017 was, generally speaking, very disheartening, studded by electoral disappointments in all the intervening contests, public spats and door-slamming exits by leading figures and the initiation of criminal investigations into alleged financial corruption. The latter led to the abyssal moment in October 2018 when, during a protest contesting a police raid on LFI’s headquarters, Mélenchon was caught on camera tussling with an officer blocking his access and then declaiming histrionically, ‘Do not touch me – I am the Republic!’ After this nadir, a breathing space was opened up by the Gilets Jaunes protests and the social movement against Macron’s pension reforms, but neither led to a dramatic transformation in LFI’s fortunes, and its poll ratings in the run up to the election cycle were a skimpy 7-9%.

Already, the campaign was clouded by doubts due to the apparent state of apathy and disillusionment engendered by the post-Covid phase, but its problems were exacerbated by the absence of any national debates (sleekit Macron not deigning this time to appear alongside the other ten candidates) and by the tremendous cloud of toxic gas produced by the eruption of far-right blatherskite Éric Zemmour, whose made-for-24-hour-TV-channel verbal outrances added a scarcely camouflaged dose of antisemitic subintelligiturs to the already mephitic mix of Muslim-baiting and immigrant-flaying shared by all the main parties. The thersitical and thrasonical saprophage thereby succeeded in pulling behind him a galvanised base of all the most archaic elements of the hard and far right – traditionalist Catholic, royalist, neofascist, Pétainist, as well as a broader range of corybantic bourgie supporters attracted by his social-Darwinist brand of neoliberalism. And, topping off a process that anaesthetised and envenomed the political scene, followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to non-stop shellacking of Mélenchon’s ‘lack of clarity’ on Putin and his opposition to NATO by the full range of mainstream bien-pensance, with Hidalgo and Jadot leading the charge (the mayor of Paris verbigerating that the deputy of Marseilles was an ‘agent’ of Russia and China…)

Fortunately, an overcrowded field of left candidates thinned out a little with the early surrender of the snollygoster Arnaud Montebourg and, in a process that it is difficult to equal in terms of sheer buffoonery, the uliginous ‘Popular Primary’ mobilised thousands of leftist sympathisers to crown Christiane Taubira – who lacked any political programme at all but sought to wing it anyway on the basis of her supposed popularity – as the candidate of ‘left unity’, only for her to withdraw sheepishly, and almost unnoticed and unmourned, a few weeks later. Biting his tongue in an uncharacteristic fashion for such a vitilitigate character, in order to avoid responding intemperately to the barbs launched by the centre-left candidates, Mélenchon ploughed on with what he called his ‘shrewd tortoise’ strategy.

It has to be said that the electoral mechanics allied to this testudineousness were well-oiled: LFI has a highly disciplined, effective and young parliamentary group; the programme L’avenir en commun was widely hailed by experts and political opponents as an assiduous and thorough document; the technophile septuagenarian and his team are crackerjacks of digital communication, especially on YouTube and Twitch; and the mass rallies, although smaller in the post-pandemic period, were imposing, combining large outside events in Toulouse, Marseilles and the ‘march’ to Place de la République in Paris, with indoor spectacles involving either ‘immersive’ 360 degree visuals and olfactive elements (Nantes) or multiple hologrammatic live replications (which allowed him to be simultaneously present in twelve different towns at the last Lille meeting on 5 April).

The former Trotskyist (as Le Monde insists on calling him) was also imperturbable in rolling out the key points of his ‘transitional programme’ such as ecological planning, freezing the prices of crucial everyday commodities from petrol to essential groceries (taking inspiration from the island of Réunion, where citizen consultations are involved in drawing up the list), a minimum wage fixed at €1,400 (currently €1,269) and a minimum pension pegged at the same level, as well as reducing the retirement age to 60, in clear opposition to Macron’s velleities to increase it to 65, and a €1,021 ‘autonomy allocation’ for those in higher or professional education so that they would not need to work on the side. But, sans pair scaldabanco that he is, Mélenchon also persistently sought to inject other themes beyond the social and economic basics: organic agriculture, animal cruelty, the impending water crisis and the problem of malbouffe; spatial and sea exploration (thalassophilia is a constant trope); the internet; femicides; the democratic crisis and need for a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution for a Sixth Republic that would end the ‘presidential monarchy’; an end to nuclear energy and an exit from NATO; indeed, even ‘the right to silence’ and to live in peace and quiet.

A crucial new institutional innovation was introduced in 2022: moving beyond the autotelic LFI campaign of 2017, Union Populaire created a ‘Parlement d’Union Populaire’, made up of 50% LFI members (thereby retroactively conferring a status of membership on what had hitherto been a vaporous entity) and 50% supporters or allies, including trade unionists and social movement activists, as well as figures such as Azzédine Taïbi, PCF mayor of Stains, and Ali Rabeh, Génération.s (Hamon) mayor of Trappes, the writers Laurent Binet, Annie Ernaux, the anti-speciesist activist Aymeric Caron, and intellectuals such as Susan George, Stefano Palombarini, Camille Peugny, Barbara Stiegler as well as those with roots in the far left such as Cédric Durand, Janette Habel, Razmig Keucheyan and Jean-Marc Schiappa. Perhaps most indicative of this opening-up operation was the prominence of Aurélie Trouvé, the former spokesperson of ATTAC, a token of the attempt to connect with the heritage of the altermondialiste movement (an echo also found in Mélenchon’s characterisation of his foreign policy position as ‘non-aligned but not neutral’ and altermondialiste – indeed, the campaign posters were emblazoned with ‘Un autre monde est possible’).

From March onwards, with Hidalgo spiralling into a chasm of her own making, Jadot weighed down by his carefully curated image of respectability and somnifacient insipidity, Roussel arousing severe disquietude even within his own camp, and Montebourg and Taubira lying like flaccid, punctured bladders in the ditch on the side of the road, UP’s polls started to refocillate and pick up a momentum it would no longer lose, powered not only by the perception that it was the tactically wise left vote (an impression reinforced by surprising endorsements by figures such as Ségolène Royal, as well as the unfortunate Taubira and intellectual supporters of the Hamon campaign such as Rémi Lefebvre and Sandra Laugier), but also by the late engagement of those layers of the working population and youth to which Mélenchon appealed, perhaps at least in part spurred by Macron’s inept revival of the spectre of controversial pension reforms that the Covid crisis had hobbled.

The results are, of course, highly uneven and no cause for vainglory. Energised by the increase of 655,000 votes for LFI/UP from 2017, the total left vote rose by 3.9% to 31.6%, but this remains one of its worst scores in the Fifth Republic (from a low point of 31% in 1969, it rose to 46.8% in 1981, after which it continued to tumble despite upticks in 2002 and 2012, with a freefall from 43.8% in 2012 to 21.7% five years later), so the recovery is no rehabilitation. Moreover, as the centre-left kobolds are keen to yammer, a significant sector was a ‘vote utile’ or tactical vote, and thus much more likely to be vacillant henceforth (one poll indicated 44% of UP voters doing so tactically as against 45% doing so by conviction). Even more grievous is the fact that, despite a small increase for LFI/UP, the supremacy of the far right among blue collar and white collar voters still appears tenacious – according to one study, 32% for Le Pen and 41% for the far right as a whole amongst ouvriers (as against 22% – other polls say 27%, which, combined with Roussel, is a 4% increase in 2017 – for Mélenchon and 29% for the Left as a whole); and 34% for Le Pen and 42% for the far right as a whole amongst employés (as against 24% for Mélenchon and 34% for the Left as a whole) – not to speak of its hold in vast swathes of rural and peri-urban France (although there is a significant belt in the south, particularly Ariège, marked by the presence of néo-ruraux and a local left culture, where Mélenchon did very well).  

Moreover, while perhaps easier to patch up in the short term, the Roussel candidacy, epicene as it was at a national level, did amputate the UP vote in formerly industrialised regions such as Aisne, Pyrénées-Orientales, Cher, Dordogne, Allier, Pas-de-Calais, especially in medium and smaller towns. Another colossal impediment to future growth is the generational ravine: whilst the youth vote for the oldest candidate is cause for hope (36% of 18-24 year olds, 21% for Macron and 18% for Le Pen; and 30% of 25-34 year olds), the glowering and pursed lips from boomers and their elders is deeply incommodious (only 13% of over-65 year olds). However, even when this is all factored in, the new mélenchoniste points of strength must be properly commended: leaving aside the settler colonies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia and the exceptional case of Mayotte, the Moroccan emigrant is already president of France’s overseas territories (56% in Guadeloupe, 53% in Martinique, 50% in Guyana and 40% in Réunion).

Also superlative were the results in the former red belt around Paris (44.4% across Ile de France), with high points of 65% at Villetaneuse, 64% at La Courneuve, 61.1% in Gennevilliers and 60.2% in Stains. In such areas, the mobilisation was sufficiently intense – with enormous queues to vote outside many polling stations – to substantially reduce the abstention rate increase, which, at 26.3% nationally, reached its second-highest ever level. More generally, Mélenchon – who won a minimum of 13% in all the départements – came top in cities and towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants (35.8% overall; 29.7% for those with more than 30,000, 30.6% in those of more than 50,000 vs 15.5% and 14.1% for Le Pen), whereas, in a mirror image, Le Pen did best in areas with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants (40.2% overall; 29.9% in towns of fewer than 3,500 vs 16.3% for UP).

Aside from the younger cohorts, UP was in the lead or at least did very well amongst Muslims (up from 37% in 2017 to 69%) – an expression of Mélenchon’s welcome shift from a rigid laïcard posture that refused to even accept the notion of Islamophobia to a full-throated defence of French Muslims and an embrace of the Glissantian ‘creolised’ nature of the country, plus a real understanding of police violence both in the context of the Gilets Jaunes and in the banlieues. He was also popular amongst the poorest (30% of the unemployed, although Le Pen did just as well here, 31% of those earning €900 or less a month) and precarious sections (33% on short-term contracts, 27% of temporary workers); as well as the most credentialled sectors of the working population (25% of those with a Baccalalauréat, 23% of those who have gone through higher education); the milieux closest to trade unions (35%; 44% of CGT supporters, 41% of FO supporters and 25% of cédétistes); renters rather than homeowners (30% vs 17%); and traditional left areas such as the working-class towns of the valley of the Seine. In contrast, the vote regressed among the middling professions intermédiaires (down from 26% to 23% in this category of primary school teachers, civil servants, administrative white-collar employees, service sector workers) but, interestingly, increased amongst artisans et commerçants (22%) and cadres et professions intellectuelles (21%).

Evidently, this is no ‘iron phalanx’, but rather a relatively heteroclite if also classical kaleidoscope of social layers – an alliance of working-class, young and plebeian groups with progressive intellectual strata which goes beyond the hard core of the radical-left constituency to embrace hunks of the centre-left base. That this has been achieved on the basis of a set of ideological coordinates expressing a left that, if not revolutionary, certainly represents a qualitative rupture with the current form of Gallic neoliberalism, that seeks to connect up working class, ecological, feminist, antiracist, even zadiste and other sensibilities without either dissolving them in the manner of the worst forms of identity politics or exposing itself to accusations of reductionism, and the fact that all of this has been carried by a strepant figure who, despite real flaws (statolatry and grandstanding about French grandeur being not the least of these), has refused to concede on key points of contention in the ideological matrix, are all solid points on which to build.

The post-first round initiatives of UP – an invitation to the PCF, Greens and NPA (the PS having been left, so far, to scratch at the door) to participate in an agreement for the legislative elections under its hegemony but not raptorial control, and Mélenchon’s appeal to ‘elect him as prime minister’ by giving him a parliamentary majority in the ‘third round’ in June – seem to indicate political intelligence and trenchancy. But UP will also face extremely challenging existential questions in the next period, beyond just the three-way split of its supporters between voting for Macron, abstention or blank voting, or a real if minoritarian temptation to use a Le Pen ballot as a weapon against the incumbent (something that Mélenchon has strongly enjoined his supporters not to do).

One issue which is often highlighted by a media obsessed with the personal dimension, but which is nonetheless genuinely problematic, is that of succession, given the candidate has said that this was his last presidential campaign. But even more perilous is the issue of organisation: hitherto, LFI has existed as an idiosyncratic, torso-less network, with ramular ‘Action Groups’ at the base (but without horizontal coordination between them) and an unelected, supernatant Activ of Mélenchon’s closest advisors and allies at the head, the two levels connected by digital ramifications. This foreswearing of a democratic partisan structure was a clear choice, in the earlier ‘left populist’ phase, to avoid factional conflicts and facilitate decisiveness, with the added advantage that it was thus also much easier both to co-opt and to disgorge (as with the regurgitation of the sovereigntists such as Georges Kuzmanovic or ethnocentric secularists à la Henri Pena-Ruiz). It must be immediately admitted that this has been positive in constructing an apparatus that proved its effectiveness in presidential elections but much less in all other circumstances. The refusal to sink deep militant roots and develop a well-muscled institutional framework is showing its limits in spreading to virgin or neglected territories, especially those not as deeply integrated into the cybersphere as the megalopolises. With all its limitations (co-optation, no executive power) and callowness, the creation of the Parliament may be a sign of recognition of the ‘mediational lacuna’, and it is to be earnestly desired that a broader discussion will now ensue.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The Centre Can Hold’, NLR 105.