Mélenchon: The Left-Wing Standard Bearer for the Nation State
A hard-left candidate, who has declared the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to be his personal hero, and has the endorsement of the Communist party, now has virtually an evens chance of winning his way into the final round of the French presidential election on 7 May.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is now polling at a consistent 20 per cent, just behind Marine Le Pen of the Front National and the independent centrist, Emmanuel Macron; in most polls, he is now ahead of the conservative, Francois Fillon. Mélenchon’s emergence as a serious contender for the top job is not, needless to say, going well down with the markets. One of his policies is to tax all incomes above 400,000 euros at 90 per cent.
A fascinating aspect of this extraordinary race is the way in which economic globalisation, and the associated issue of immigration, is now becoming the axis around which politics is re-aligning. The traditional mass bases of support for the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties are fracturing along this fault line.
What is happening in France has also been taking place in Holland, Austria, Italy, Britain to some extent, and America. The old parties are themselves in danger of becoming marginalised. The official Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon (also running on a hard-left platform) is polling at about 7 per cent, and falling. He will be lucky to come fifth, and, if he goes into freefall, that could help Mélenchon reach the final.
For the conservatives, the pro-free-market Fillon, mired in allegations of corruption, looks unlikely to make it to the second round — which would be the first time, post-war, that a candidate of the centre right had failed to achieve this. Macron, a former socialist minister under President Hollande, is the poster boy for the pro-globalisation, new ‘third-way’ left.
Primarily, Macron attracts the support of shiny, younger, middle-class cosmopolitan voters, who are employed in the private sector, have little sense of national identity, are stridently in favour of allegedly marginalised identity groups, and support economic liberalisation. Their candidate is the one serious contender in the race who is unambiguously pro-EU, wants greater integration, and defends large-scale immigration.
Mélenchon, by contrast — like Le Pen — is a Eurosceptic, promising to renegotiate his country’s treaty with the EU, which he describes as ‘the new empire’. He threatens to work for ‘Frexit’, should there not be a radical re-writing of the text consigning the basic tenets of the single currency and the single market — including the free movement of labour — to history. He also wants to take France out of NATO.
So, we have two candidates — one ostensibly from the nationalist right, and another from the hard left — coming together in support of economic protectionism and the restricting of immigration, both denouncing big business and opposing the technocratic transnationalism of Brussels. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn — his equivalent in Britain — Mélenchon has succeeded in breathing new life into the hard left by clearly and unambiguously linking his political position to a patriotic defence of the nation as a self-governing community that can withstand the unwanted aspects of globalisation and restrict immigration. He has used language not dissimilar from Le Pen when addressing the immigration issue: he has accused foreign workers of ‘stealing their bread’ from indigenous people, and has stated starkly, ‘I’ve never been in favour of freedom of arrival’.
This formula has prevented the Front National contender from pulling away from the pack and tucking into the support of even more of the working-class voters who once habitually voted for either the socialist or communist parties. Increasingly over the past twenty years or so, these voters have periodically switched to the FN, in much the same way Labour traditionalists in the North, Midlands, and South Wales voted for UKIP in 2015 — or many blue-collar Democrats opted for Trump. There is even evidence that some voters who had declared themselves for Le Pen are drifting towards Mélenchon. If the run-off on 7 May turns out to be between him and Macron, we can expect a very significant portion — maybe a clear majority — of her first-round supporters then to vote hard left.
France is the last western nation in which a self-confessed affiliation to Marxian ideas does not automatically consign a candidate or party to the outer fringes of politics. Hard leftism, like authoritarian nationalism, is part of the country’s political DNA. From 1936 (when it entered the government as part of the ‘front populaire’, under Leon Blum) until 1981, the hard-line Stalinist Parti Communiste Français (PCF) established itself as France’s principal left-wing force, especially in the post-war period. It didn’t just dominate the left electorally but intellectually, too. The cafés of St Germain were (metaphorically) ablaze in the 1950s, when the two left-wing heavyweights of existentialist philosophy, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, got into a very public and wonderfully Gallic intellectual spat over the former’s support for Russian-style socialism.
Marxism was then the prism through which political ideas were debated, as all coherent political alternatives — whether liberal or fascist inspired — were seen to have become rendered, for various reasons, redundant. Gaullist conservatism was defined not by a foundation of firm abstract principles, but through patronage, a commitment to a mishmash of centrist technocratic ideas, and opposition to the Communists .
The continuing potency of a fundamentalist form of leftism is a by-product of a nation that was, like America, shaped constitutionally by an ideas-led revolution. The idea that society could be recreated through an act of ideological will has much more purchase in those countries than in one like Britain, which has evolved in a more piecemeal and reformist way.
Just as the birth of the modern era and the industrial revolution gave rise to a countervailing socialist movement, so the economic and cultural disruptions caused by globalisation and immigration are again giving rise to oppositional forces. Mélenchon and Le Pen are, today, the main repositories of this. In probability, only one of them will make it through to the final round — the standard bearer for a politics based on the nation state, against the transnationalism of the favourite, Macron.