HomeEuropeJean-Luc Mélenchon’s improbable insurrection

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s improbable insurrection

Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO. 

PARIS — Despite failing to reach the run-off in France’s three presidential elections, leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon is now looking to stir up a popular uprising against the cost-of-living crisis and pension reform, in hopes of ousting centrist President Emmanuel Macron.  

Don’t hold your breath. 

The French may be historically, and temperamentally, rebellious, but there seems little chance that the 71-year-old former Trotskyist can engineer a mass protest movement to corner Macron.

The French president contends he has a mandate to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65 — as pledged during his reelection campaign — and he has issued a veiled threat to dissolve parliament and call a snap parliamentary election if opposition parties unite to block the proposed legislation next year. Opinion polls show a majority of voters oppose the pension reform. 

In this, Mélenchon spies a “democratic opportunity” to force the president out — or make him yield to a leftist government. To kick-start this revolt, the leader of the anti-capitalist, anti-globalization France Unbowed (LFI) party has called for a “march against the high cost of living”later this week, on October 16.

“These reforms have no justification beyond his determination to force them on the people on behalf of the dominant oligarchy he represents,” Mélenchon thundered in typical jaded revolutionary jargon in his latest blog post. “An all-out fight against the ruling caste is our only horizon, given the violent assault on unemployment benefits and the pension system.” 

But there are several reasons why Mélenchon is unlikely to succeed. 

For a start, the main trade unions have refused to join his crusade. Even the communist-led General Confederation of Labor has made clear it will be organizing its own strikes and protests to demand wage rises keep pace with prices, and that it won’t let itself be press-ganged into a political campaign.  

Inflation stood at 5.6 percent in France last month, well below the European Union average, due mainly to government gasoline subsidies and energy price caps. Those measures have cushioned voters from the worst of the energy crisis so far and dampened the ardor of would-be protesters — although, significantly, households haven’t switched their heating on yet. Thus, a one-day strike and demonstrations called by the unions on September 29 drew only a limited response. 

Moreover, many of the working-class voters whom Mélenchon claims to represent have long switched allegiance to Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Rally (RN). LFI, which supports immigration and multiculturalism, appeals more to an urban electorate and has less appeal in the high-rise suburbs, rust-belt towns or rural areas where popular anger is strongest. 

The far-right leader Marine Le Pen | Pool photo by Marin Ludovic via Getty Images

Mélenchon was unable to capitalize on the spontaneous Yellow Jackets protests that erupted against a carbon tax hike in 2018, roiling France for several months. Many of those protesters were apolitical or RN supporters rather than leftists, and while another Yellow Jackets-type outburst this winter can’t be ruled out, it’s far from clear whether the radical left would be able to exploit it this time around.

Having made the blunder of giving up his own seat in parliament just as the National Assembly has become the focal point of political life, Mélenchon is struggling to hold together the New Ecologist and Social Popular Union (NUPES), an alliance of left-wing parties he forged to contest the June elections.

The Socialists, Greens and Communists rejected his bid to force them into a single parliamentary caucus under LFI leadership. And while the alliance united to demand a tax on energy companies’ “super-profits,” they’ve differed publicly on issues ranging from the war in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to calls for bans on bullfighting, private jets and barbecues.

“NUPES is going to fail because there are fundamental disagreements between its component parties over foreign policy, NATO and the United States, but also on feminism and societal issues,” says veteran political scientist Gérard Grunberg. “The left can only win power in France if the moderates are in the lead.”

It would take a joint vote of all NUPES deputies, plus the hard-right RN and the center-right Les Républicains to topple the government over pension reform. That looks highly unlikely since none of them wish to be seen voting together, and Les Républicains have already advocated raising the retirement age.

Many on the left are also wary of Mélenchon‘s choleric temperament, visceral anti-Americanism and the personality cult that surrounds him. A deep gulf remains between the “protest left” embodied by LFI and the so-called “governing left” of Socialists, Greens and Communists who run cities and local authorities and have alternated in power with the center right. And moderates — long the butt of Mélenchon’s scorn — bristle at LFI’s rowdy street-theater tactics in parliament.

Many on the left are also wary of Mélenchon‘s choleric temperament, visceral anti-Americanism and the personality cult that surrounds him. A deep gulf remains between the “protest left” embodied by LFI and the so-called “governing left” of Socialists, Greens and Communists who run cities and local authorities and have alternated in power with the center right. And moderates — long the butt of Mélenchon’s scorn — bristle at LFI’s rowdy street-theater tactics in parliament. 

The fiery orator sees himself as heir to socialist hero Jean Jaurès, or Cuba’s Fidel Castro. When he compared this week’s planned protest with the historic 1789 march on Versailles during the French Revolution, his partners in NUPES told him to cut the hype. But Mélenchon’s present-day guru is Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who argues that the radical left must embrace populism in order to capture and amplify public anger against, what she calls, the neoliberal, technocratic consensus.

Former French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon | Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

Mouffe was an adviser to Spain’s leftist Podemos party, which grew out of the anti-capitalist Indignados protest movement but has lost much of its profile and electoral support, after entering a coalition government under the center-left Socialist party. In the United Kingdom, when the radical left took control of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, it alienated many voters, particularly in working-class areas. 

While Mélenchon hankers after a popular uprising, some younger generation LFI lawmakers, such as film director François Ruffin and suburban Paris deputy Clémentine Autain, want more focus on winning over the neighborhoods and countryside, and allowing more pluralistic internal debate. 

Or as journalist Nora Hamadi, an astute observer of French left debates, quipped, “If the Maximum Leader goes on dreaming of a revolutionary Big Night, he may not even see a little dawn.”



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