Blog post

l’Union Populaire is a Strategy

Marlon Ettinger reports from France on the aftermath of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign, its effects on the frontrunning candidates, and its creation of a new left bloc in French politics.

Marlon Ettinger24 April 2022

l’Union Populaire is a Strategy

When Jean-Luc Mélenchon spoke at the Maison de Chimie in the center of Paris on Thursday evening, it was his first big public gathering since he missed out by a hair’s breadth from making it into the second round runoff of the presidential election.

The gap between the La France Insoumise candidate and Marine Le Pen in second place was just 421,308 votes. The French Communist Party, in 8th place, managed to scrape up 802,422 votes. This was the first time they had run a candidate in a decade. In both 2012 and 2017 they endorsed Mélenchon. After two election cycles of failure, they figured Mélenchon was not the horse to back. Fabien Roussel, a deputy for a constituency in the North of the country close to Belgium, became national secretary of the party in 2018, following Mélenchon's second defeat; the spearhead of a thrust in the Party which decided it needed an independent line or it would die.

In the introduction to Roussel's party program, The France of Happy Days, he wrote that the goal of his candidacy was to elect the largest number of left wing deputies, and among them Communist deputies, to the National Assembly. There were no illusions about there being a President Fabien Roussel in 2022.

"It's there, in the Parliament, not in the…[presidential] palace,” Roussel wrote, “which reproduces the presidential monarchy which repels so many men and women from politics, where everything will be played for."

Before a PCF meeting in Lille on the 7th of April I ran into Pierre Laurent, Roussel's predecessor as National Secretary, and the man who had brokered the deal between the PCF and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Roussel’s ascension had pushed aside his faction, which had pursued a union of the left for the past decade. He seemed tired when I asked him about Jean-Luc. The last experience with Mélenchon, Laurent said, hadn’t been enough. The PCF was in the running, he conceded, only for the June legislative election

“We’re not adversaries,” he told me, of Mélenchon’s movement l’Union Populaire, and he’d always tried to bring the groups together. But despite “having shared ideas,” the alliance couldn’t be. Even at that late stage, just three days before the first round, there were informal contacts with people trying to broker some sort of deal, but Laurent, the president of the party’s senatorial group now, wasn’t involved in any of those futile attempts.

Inside the stadium in Lille there were just under 4,000 people, and Roussel began his speech by asking his supporters to imagine what it would be like if he arrived in the presidential palace.

“Free yourself,” he said, “vote for your ideas…this isn’t my last meeting.”

The way to convince people to vote their way, Roussel said, was by inviting them around for sausages and alcohol.

Maybe that was all Mélenchon needed to do – but the 70 year old politician is a vegetarian, and the union of the left which had carried him to international prominence over the past two elections had broken down exactly when he needed it the most. The Communists had figured Mélenchon would never even get close. After a strong, but not strong enough, finish in 2017, his party had collapsed in the legislative elections. Before the 2022 campaign started, Mélenchon was already being dismissed. Early polling had him hovering around 10%. There were some doubts he’d get even that.

Waiting in line to get into Mélenchon’sMaison de la Chimie rally, a line that stretched far back around the block, I talked with an older guy dressed smartly in a brown hat with a feather in his band. He’d been a militant “more or less all his life,” he told me. Since 1968, at least. Back then he was a Trotskyist.

“Lambertist?” I asked, referring to the group where Mélenchon had received his early political education before joining the Socialist Party (Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister of France from 1997 to 2002, was also a member of the group – a persistent, unlikely, rumor about the two men is that they joined the Socialist Party as part of a Trotskyist entryism campaign). “More Luxembourgist,” he said.

Even though he couldn’t stand Francois Mitterand, he said, the night of May 10th, 1981 had been incredible. “It felt like a liberation from Gaullism”. For a year and a half he could breathe. Then came Mitterand’s turn in 1983 towards austerity, and the departure of the Communist ministers from the government in 1984. Mitterand won reelection in 1988 but didn’t govern with a left radical program again.

Mélenchon rose to national prominence, as part of his long march up the ranks of the Socialist Party, in the government of Jospin. He served as minister of vocational education. I met a guy in Toulouse on the 3rd of April who had met Mélenchon at the time. Damien, a teacher, was a talented young student in 2000 - he won a prize for his precociousness and was presented with a stack of books by Jean-Luc, who he remembers being avuncular, warm, and interested in his path of educational development. In Mélenchon, Damien saw the only possibility to “save the social republic,” and says he was touched by the older man’s pedagogical interest in him.

“How do you feel?” he remembered Jean-Luc asking him.

“Useful,” Damien said.

“That’s good, continue working,” Mélenchon said, and emphasized that education was a perpetual process.

Mélenchon, who began his career as a teacher too, still carries that pedagogical style with him. On Thursday night, the crowd in attendance was so large there wasn’t space in the theater where he gave his main address. A good-sized crowd of disappointed people were turned away and sent to an overflow room where they could watch the address on a large screen. One woman, close to tears, begged the usher to be allowed to sit in the aisle of the balcony. “I’ve never seen him before,” she entreated.

But then, down in the overflow room, Mélenchon showed the human touch he possesses in great reserves but rarely shows on television. His oratorical style is intense and often violent, something I saw in Toulouse earlier in the campaign when he proclaimed vituperatively that “liberals are always the enemies of liberty & democracy,” and in Lille on the 6th of April – his last mass rally as a presidential candidate – when he shouted that “millions of French people are grabbed by the throat by the explosion in the price of fuel.” At one notorious moment in 2010, at the Congress of the Parti du Gauche, which he formed after his break from the Socialist Party, he said he was “the sound and the fury, like the age I live in.”

Now, it is a different age – Mélenchon has established his hegemony over the left in France. Rather than the sound and the fury, I saw a different Mélenchon here: the great reconciler. He began with the disappointed overflow crowd, coming out and addressing them in person for about 15 minutes. He got a relieved standing ovation from those that felt they had missed out. He blustered past it and waved down the ovation with a laugh.

“The analysis of an election is always an ideological challenge,” he charged. Despite the disappointment of the loss, “it was a very good campaign…there were good slogans at the right moment,” and it was not over either. Now, it was the 3rd round, he said, meaning the legislative elections in June. These, he said, are “not a formality.”

On Wednesday, he’d announced in a television interview that he wanted the French people to elect him Prime Minister. This could be accomplished by l’Union Populaire, his movement, rallying the forces of the left who had been divided in the first round of the election around his program l’Avenir en Commun, or “A Common Future.” Nearly every party on the left has already signaled an openness to discussions exploring this, even the Socialist Party, Mélenchon’s longtime bete-noire, reduced to 1.7% with their candidate Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who attacked Mélenchon constantly during the campaign and said she represented the left who had “learned from their mistakes.” It was enough for Mélenchon to mention 1.7 at the conference on Thursday to get a gale of laughter.

l’Union Populaire is a strategy,” he said. Now, everybody else uses our grammar and our syntax. He was referring to the campaigns being led by Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, who have tilted in his direction in a bid for the over 7.7 million voters who cast a ballot for him.

On the 14th of April I had been in the South of the country in Avignon. There, Le Pen was addressing a crowd at the Parc des Expositions on the outskirts of the city. Avignon was the only city governed by the nominal left - a Socialist Party mayor - in a sea of conservatism in the region of Vaucluse. 37% of the city had chosen Mélenchon, with over 20% for Macron and just 19% for Le Pen. There, Marine Le Pen gave a speech emphasizing her commitment to not raising the retirement age, against Macron’s project to raise the age to 65. She made an on the nose remark which was as clear a pitch to left wing Mélenchon voters as her choice of the city was. Her campaign, she said, was about the “conquest of the future,” a reference to the name of Mélenchon’s program. And put even briefer, she said, her campaign was about “the people, against the oligarchy,” another nod to Mélenchon, whose theoretical contribution to the world was a 2017 book called “The Era of the People,” which laid out new class balance where “the people,” a heterogeneous collection of largely urban dwellers, have replaced “the proletariat” as the motive force in history. They could take power through a “Citizen’s Revolution” at the urns and the writing of a new constitution.

Then on the 16th of April I was in Marseille for a day and I went to watch Macron speak. Most of his voters were sanguine about Macron’s project to raise the retirement age. “For me, it changes nothing,” said Philippe, who was already retired. He had had to wait until he was 65 to take a full retirement anyway. And Macron, he said, had “created a lot of jobs.”

But in the beautiful Jardin du Pharo which overlooks the old port and the city, Macron addressed the crowd on a stage in the round, with a clear eye to trying to seduce some Mélenchon voters. In the first round, Mélenchon got 31,12 %, almost ten points higher than Macron. Macron defended his record, saying that the media and his critics had “forgotten what we’ve done.”

And where Le Pen tried to tilt red, Macron tilted green. Under his government, he said, he’d maintained the integrity of the Paris Climate Accords when America left them.

“When the US finally decided to return, the accords were still there,” he said. And his government had inscribed into law ecocide as a crime.

“The politics to come will be ecological, or they will be nothing at all,” he said, as he promised that his Prime Minister would be charged with “ecological planning,” a phrase that’s long been the cornerstone of Mélenchon’s program. Even further, he promised two new ministers in his government, one to handle the transition to renewable energy, the other to plan the transition in each territory of France.

The vote on April 24th, then, Macron said, is civilizational. The far-right are climate skeptics, and only by voting for him would it be possible to “build a future together.” The words in French were avenir en commun, another direct reference to Mélenchon’s program.

Despite Mélenchon’s 3rd defeat then, he has established himself and l’Union Populaire as the third political force in the country, against Macron’s authoritarian liberal bloc, and Marine Le Pen’s neoliberal far-right bloc. He emphasized this at the House of Chemistry, where the crowd drank in every word he spoke, waiting for his next directions, his analyses, his decisions on what path to take next.

“The force of the l’Union Populaire is the people: the people who struggle and work and try to survive,” Mélenchon said. “We restart at each election.”

The score of the “social bloc”, which Mélenchon says has been established, was 25.7% - the same score as the French Communist Party at the time of the liberation. And he was ready to go further.

“We are the movement of the Citizen’s Revolution,” he insisted. There had been a continual progression in the construction of this movement. He had been campaigning for 18 months, and he was ready to campaign for two months more. “Never forget,” he said. “When there’s a campaign, we campaign.”

Marlon Ettinger is the author of Zemmour & Gaullism.