Ben Wray: Mélenchon's French left populism could be the surprise story of 2017

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray says there is one candidate in the upcoming French election who could cause an upset

2017 PROMISES to be a pivotal year for Europe, but in ways that can’t possibly be foretold.

As Brexit officially begins, elections in France in May and in Germany at the end of the year will be pivotal in determining the future of the EU, with the 27-member state institution under unprecedented pressure from the rise of rightwing nationalism. The response from Brussels has been to try to ride it out, refusing to make any serious concessions or offer much of anything that could be considered a game-changer. 

This was summed up in a viral speech in the European Parliament by Spanish Popular Party MEP Esteban González Pons, who stated that the EU is facing an existential crisis, but needs to hold together as the modern world requires it.

A titanic struggle is therefore set up between the liberal centre versus the radical right, which has seized victories in the US and Britain. Fear and hatred versus the status quo. Or is it? 

"Europe without a doubt is the best solution and we don’t know how to explain it to our citizens. Globalisation means that Europe today is inevitable, the only alternative," he said.

Pons offered no new solutions or reforms, no hint that mistakes have been made or that some concerns were legitimate: citizens needed to understand that the EU is the future and all other roads the past.

A titanic struggle is therefore set up between the liberal centre versus the radical right, which has seized victories in the US and Britain, gone down to narrow defeat in the Netherlands and now is going for France, with Front National’s Marine Le Pen set to face off against pro-EU banker Emmanuel Macron, who, although presenting himself as an outsider, holds politics that will warm hearts in Brussels. Fear and hatred versus the status quo.

Or is it? 

A third contender has lurked around the ring, trying to barge its way into the prize fight, sometimes meekly and sometimes vigorously. It reared its head in the US, when Bernie Sanders ran Hillary Clinton close for the Democratic nomination. 

A third contender has lurked around the ring, trying to barge its way into the prize fight, sometimes meekly and sometimes vigorously. The red spectre now stalks France, home of many of history's great leftist revolts. 

It has shown itself a force in Spain, where Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos movement has become an insurgent force. It entered power in Greece through Syriza before the party surrendered to austerity under enormous pressure from the EU establishment. Left populism, sometimes emerging within the husk of old centre-left parties and sometimes from outside, has threatened to become a player, but hasn’t quite made its breakthrough.

The red spectre now stalks France, home of many of history's great leftist revolts. 

In many ways the election has crystallised the depths of the crisis for the European left, with the Socialist Party president François Hollande not even standing for re-election, such is the deep hole he has dug himself through his joyless presidency, never budging an inch from centrist orthodoxy and who’s most notable activity was to attempt to neuter the French labour movement. 

But, as Albert Einstein once said, "in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity", and two candidates of the left are trying to seize the opportunity presented by the Socialist Party establishment’s failure.

In Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party grassroots has done a mini-Corbyn, rejecting a former prime minister and the initial front-runner in Manuel Valls in favour of a candidate who resigned as a minister in 2014 over Hollande’s dedication to neoliberal economics, and is running on a radical platform of a universal basic income, a 32-hour working week, taxes on automation and huge green energy public investment. 

The Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon appears to be getting put into the shade by former SP minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his left populist movement, la France insoumise (Unbowed France).

But fatigue with the Socialist Party’s repeated failures runs deep and Hamon’s candidacy has split the party hierarchy, with a number of historic SP leaders coming out in support of Macron, following the example of the Blairites in the UK by throwing their toys out of the pram when power slips from their grasp, despite demanding strict discipline from the left of the party for decades.

Hamon therefore appears to be getting put into the shade by former SP minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his left populist movement, la France insoumise (Unbowed France). After impressive TV performances he has surged to 16 per cent of the vote, just short of scandal-ridden centre-right candidate François Fillon in third place on 17 per cent, and behind front-runners Macron and Marine Le Pen on 26 and 25 per cent respectively.

Mélenchon still has a long way to go, then, to catch Macron or Le Pen and force his way into the second round of presidential voting, but he has the momentum and the widespread opinion is that his rise is taking votes directly from Front National, which has capitalised on working class disillusionment with the Socialist Party. 

With nearly half of voters yet to make up their mind, the presidential race remains highly unpredictable and Mélenchon is in with a shout of upsetting the apple cart.

Unbowed France’s programme, outlined in a 350-point book called Future in Common, is radical on just about every front, including constitutionally, where it is clear that there can be no going along with EU laws that prohibit serious change.

With nearly half of voters yet to make up their mind, the presidential race remains highly unpredictable and Mélenchon is in with a shout of upsetting the apple cart.

"Our programme is not compatible with the rules of European treaties that impose budgetary austerity, free trade and the destruction of public services. To implement our program, we will have to disobey the treaties as soon as we come to power, by measures to safeguard the sovereignty of the French people," the programme states unambiguously.

Mélenchon’s plan A is to negotiate an exit from key treaties that currently lock-in "austerity Europe". Once agreed, a referendum should be held on signing up to the "refounded European Union". But if this re-negotiation fails his plan B is aggressive: a "unilateral breach" with budget contributions to the EU stopped, and "control of capital and goods at national borders to avoid tax evasion by the wealthiest..."

What changes are "the unbowed", as Mélenchon has dubbed his supporters, after? Here’s a flavour of their policies:

- a €1,300 monthly minimum wage; 

- a 100 per cent tax on earnings over €33,000 per month; 

- a €100bn stimulus package; 

Unbowed France has over 300,000 supporters and Mélenchon’s rallies attract thousands. He calls the situation in France "pre-revolutionary", which excites him: a "citizens’ revolution" is what he is after.

- a reduced corporate tax rate for profits re-invested in France rather than
distributed to shareholders; 

- an international trade policy of "economic cooperation protectionism"
including tariffs against countries without proper child labour and trade union
rights; 

- one million new public houses; 

- lower the retirement age to 60; 

- a "green rule" in government policy not to take more from nature than "it can
reconstitute or produce more than it can bear"; 

While he has gained notoriety for his colourful attacks on Le Pen, some left critics argue that he has drifted too far in her direction. Nonetheless, Mélenchon’s left populism appears to be the most effective force in French politics at under-cutting support for Le Pen.

- air, water, food, living, health, energy and money as "common goods"; 

- supporting co-operatives of workers and readers/listeners in the media.

Unbowed France has over 300,000 supporters and Mélenchon’s rallies attract thousands. He calls the situation in France "pre-revolutionary", which excites him: a "citizens’ revolution" is what he is after. "Force of the people" is Unbowed France’s slogan, a framing which has garnered support among those who believe the left has to go beyond a traditional leftist political identity and try to develop a new majoritarian politics representing society as a whole, an approach which has marked similarities to that of Podemos in Spain.

Mélenchon stood in the 2012 presidential election, winning 11 per cent of the vote, and since then it has been argued that his politics have become more populist, ceding ground to the right on issues like immigration and Islamophobia, on which his position is now described by commentators as "deliberately ambiguous". 

While he has gained notoriety for his colourful attacks on Le Pen, some left critics argue that he has drifted too far in her direction.

The possibility that he could beat both the traditional centre-right and centre-left party candidates shows the radical left can be a force in the emerging and unpredictable politics of Europe.

Nonetheless, Mélenchon’s left populism appears to be the most effective force in French politics at under-cutting support for Le Pen. The possibility that he could beat both the traditional centre-right and centre-left party candidates shows the radical left can be a force in the emerging and unpredictable politics of Europe, where new forces can emerge suddenly and voters are more willing than ever to dump traditional party loyalties. 

It is essential that the left is innovative and dynamic enough to seize the initiative in those circumstances: a dangerous dichotomy between the status quo and the radical right is what led many voters disillusioned with declining living standards to Brexit and Trump.

For us in Scotland, we should keep a close eye on the development of European politics: Brexit and a second referendum will take place over the next few years on shifting sands. It is possible the EU will not look anything like it does right now in a few years. 

Perhaps the most naive view would be to think that nothing will change: if the crisis deepens and the status quo becomes increasingly unbearable, voters will shift left or right for answers. I know which side I’ll be on.

Picture courtesy of Pierre-Selim

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