Whose Populism? The Mixed Messages of La France Insoumise

Whose Populism? The Mixed Messages of La France Insoumise

Claiming the mantle of populism, La France Insoumise has sought to transcend the left and build a new coalition to transform French politics. But the group’s commitment to pluralism is already revealing limits.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (center), accompanied by philosopher Chantal Mouffe (left), Insoumise deputies, and others at a “March for the Sixth Republic" (Bernard Menigault / Alamy Live News)

Last December, François Ruffin mounted the pulpit of France’s National Assembly and removed his shirt, revealing an ill-fitting green soccer goalie’s jersey underneath. A muckraking left-wing journalist—one might call him the Michael Moore of Picardy—Ruffin has a history of causing trouble with his brazen fashion choices. In one scene of his award-winning documentary Merci Patron!, for example, he dons a white T-shirt emblazoned with the face of the CEO of the luxury-brand conglomerate LVMH before crashing the group’s annual shareholder meeting. But this time, at the National Assembly, no guards came to escort him off the premises. Several months prior, Ruffin had been elected as a deputy to France’s main legislative body on the ticket of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s insurgent movement La France Insoumise. The floor was his to speak.

As Ruffin explained to his colleagues, the jersey was that of an amateur soccer team from a village in his district near Amiens. Though the state spends extravagant sums subsidizing professional teams in the name of “competitiveness,” he claimed, ordinary people buy and wash their jerseys at their own expense, and sacrifice precious time and money to keep their friends and children on the field. He concluded his speech with a call to end the dominance of “elites” in the world of sports, by redistributing funds from big-league matches to the thousands of local clubs scattered across the country.

For this seemingly innocent stunt, Ruffin was officially sanctioned and forced to pay a fine by the president of the National Assembly for violating parliamentary decorum—a small price to pay, he later claimed, for standing up for the average Joes of France’s amateur teams. “Up until now, nobody paid attention to what was going on in the Assembly,” he explained in a radio interview, but through theatrics like these, shared millions of times on social media, he believed the legislature could become “a tribune for the people.”

Amateur soccer might not seem a likely priority for La France Insoumise, the movement that now boasts that it is the dominant force on the French left. One year after Mélenchon and his allies upstaged the Parti Socialiste in the country’s presidential election, however, Ruffin’s performance captures something essential about the movement’s populist political strategy. The term “populism” has most often been used by critics of La France Insoumise as an epithet, a synonym for extremism. Understood more fully, it is in fact an apt description of Mélenchon’s plan to reshape French democracy—and it is a badge he wears with pride. Seeking to engage disaffected voters by rallying “the people” against “the elites,” La France Insoumise believes it can build an unconventional but durable coalition for a twenty-first-century left. Its attempts to reinvigorate participatory democracy suggest that La France Insoumise is not the authoritarian menace centrist opponents have made it out to be. But its insistence that it, and only it, can save the left threatens to stifle both its political success and the democratic and egalitarian elements of its project.

With the specter of communism a distant memory, many European centrists today consider “populism” to be the most pressing threat to global democracy. In this usage, the term presents little distinction between the anti-establishment left and the xenophobic far right. During Mélenchon’s 2017 presidential campaign, pundits regularly cast him as an authoritarian personality, no less dangerous than Marine Le Pen of the neo-fascist Front National. Mélenchon seemed little concerned with countering these charges, and in some respects deserved them. He went out of his way to praise Latin American strongmen such as Hugo Chávez, and advocated a warming towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He frequently picked fights with television and print journalists whom he accused of spewing “fake news” against him, and many of his supporters adopted pseudo-conspiratory rhetoric online. And when Le Pen advanced to the second round of the election, he refused to explicitly endorse a vote for her opponent Emmanuel Macron.

Even for many fellow leftists who might have otherwise supported La France Insoumise’s ambitious ecosocialist platform—which promised massive investments in sustainable energy and public services, as well as initiatives to combat precarious “uberized” work and the influence of large financial and tech corporations—the movement’s risky plan to force renegotiations of the European Union’s central treaties by threatening a French withdrawal was hard to swallow. Though the left wing of the Parti Socialiste may have agreed that the EU’s structure under the Lisbon and Maastricht agreements favored neoliberal policies, it remained too attached to the European project to enter into an alliance with Mélenchon. No wonder that in a context where many had reasonable fears for the future of French and European democracy, Macron was easily able to present himself as the stable alternative to the “populists” on his right and left flanks.

While some of the now conventional fears of “populism” were justified with regard to La France Insoumise, the movement has demonstrated a rather different understanding of the term since last year’s elections. Drawing on the ideas of the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, who has appeared in public alongside Mélenchon and Ruffin, les insoumis believe that we are living amid a crisis of democratic participation. According to Mouffe, decades of neoliberal consensus have turned ordinary citizens away from participation in the political process. At the same time, long-established political institutions and concepts are no longer seen as adequate to capture popular demands. For La France Insoumise, the historic levels of voter abstention seen in last year’s elections are proof that a dramatic redrawing of the political map is both possible and necessary. In this “populist moment,” to use Mouffe’s words, Mélenchon’s movement is convinced that the way to win is to mobilize the disillusioned through new forms of political participation and engagement.

Participatory democracy has been part of the movement’s identity since it first took off in the run-up to Mélenchon’s 2017 campaign. La France Insoumise has described itself not as a party, but as a decentralized “network.” The movement’s original idea was to create a participatory online platform for developing ideas that could be implemented by local offline action groups—though of course coordinated by central organizing committees and led by a charismatic leader. It was this dispersed, “horizontalist” structure that produced the crowdsourced program for the movement’s presidential and legislative races. La France Insoumise has vowed to use this same structure to maintain an energetic popular mobilization even in the absence of electoral campaigns. (Perhaps surprisingly, La France Insoumise has many of these features in common with Emmanuel Macron’s campaign movement La République En Marche! Although Macron is the one with a reputation for importing the values of Silicon Valley into French politics, Mélenchon has also expressed—in strange agreement with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg—the belief that social networks represent an inherently democratic model of interaction.)

One of La France Insoumise’s most visible initiatives has been to redefine the relationship between citizens and their elected officials. Mélenchon himself is a hardened political veteran who served as a senator and an education minister for the Parti Socialiste before leaving the party in 2008. But after running a less successful 2012 presidential campaign as the candidate of the Front de Gauche—a coalition of far-left parties with traditional organizing structures, including the Communists—Mélenchon sought a reboot. He launched La France Insoumise in February 2016, presenting the new movement-cum-party as a vehicle for discontent with established politics. During last year’s legislative election, La France Insoumise proposed a slate of candidates who had largely never served in government. Macron and his centrist allies made a similar promise, pledging to bring into government the expertise of “civil society”: that is, private-sector managers and educated professionals. In contrast, les insoumis boast that their own non-politicians represent ordinary people, and the movement’s deputies elected last summer include a call-center operator, Adrien Quatennens; a librarian, Danièle Obono; and a nursing assistant, Caroline Fiat.

The unconventional parliamentary style pioneered by Ruffin, however, suggests an aim not merely to include ordinary people in the legislature, but to ensure that popular demands are heard. Macron’s center-right party holds one of the largest legislative majorities in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Yet despite being virtually guaranteed the votes to secure any of Macron’s priorities, the government led by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has chosen to pass its most important bills—notably its liberalization of the labor code and the national rail service—via an emergency procedure that cuts out parliamentary debate. La France Insoumise does introduce legislation, and some of its initiatives have received support from other minority parties, such as a proposal to hold employers financially responsible for workplace “burnout.” But knowing that they will ultimately have little more than a symbolic influence over the legislative process, Ruffin has asserted that the most effective form of opposition at their disposal is to create a spectacle on the Assembly floor—whether by wearing soccer jerseys or waving a checkbook at the minister of health to demand funding for nursing homes—that lets disaffected working-class citizens know that La France Insoumise is on their team, and the ruling macronistes are not.

This confrontational strategy, which opponents have derided as a mere attempt to generate “media buzz,” has obvious limits. The YouTube views Ruffin’s videos receive are no substitute for citizen engagement any more than they are for passing legislation. For this reason, La France Insoumise’s deputies prefer to present themselves less as a small opposition party in the Assembly than as the parliamentary wing of a soon-to-be hegemonic popular mobilization.

La France Insoumise supporter

To this end, they have drawn inspiration from a perhaps unlikely American source: the community organizing methods of Saul Alinsky. Like Alinsky once did in Chicago’s slums, La France Insoumise has launched a series of door-to-door listening campaigns in the low-income banlieues of France’s major cities. As movement spokeswoman Leïla Chaibi explained during a Rules for Radicals training session I attended, by going directly to the country’s most disaffected citizens, La France Insoumise can not only learn which issues are on their minds, but also establish a human connection with people who might otherwise be wary of left-wing organizers. In so doing, the movement believes it can help marginalized citizens overcome feelings of isolation and powerlessness and prepare them to take on the elites. Chaibi asserted that La France Insoumise’s well-publicized clashes with representatives of the status quo also fit into Alinsky’s playbook. She cited a 1972 interview in which Alinsky explained that in order to win the trust of Chicago slum-dwellers, “I made outrageous statements to the press, I attacked every civic and business leader I could think of, and I goaded the establishment to strike back.”

Alinsky’s ideas have guided La France Insoumise organizers as they have experimented with a smorgasbord of local actions over the last year, concentrated especially in working-class neighborhoods. Its activities have blended political pedagogy with efforts to foster camaraderie, from meetings with the movement’s deputies in local pubs to “citizen schools” modeled on 1960s teach-ins to traveling “caravans” that provide free information on how low-income citizens can exercise their civil and social rights. For the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster this March, the movement held a symbolic referendum on nuclear energy, designed to show “the people’s” support for denuclearization. But since La France Insoumise did little to disguise the campaign’s partisan character—one of the volunteers at a pop-up polling station in Paris admitted to me that he had not received a single “no” vote, and the “yes” campaign scored over 93 percent in the final tally—the initiative came across more as a performance of the democratic process than as a sincere attempt to gauge popular opinion.

If nothing else, as local groups channel some of Alinsky’s theatrical flair, they cultivate an improvised, neighborly atmosphere, without shying from radical provocation. One Sunday afternoon in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, for example, I came across a “people’s trial,” in which residents of this socially mixed neighborhood cheered on as a papier-mâché banking “oligarch” was handed his sentence. Ruffin has sought to establish himself as the leading advocate of this style of political gathering, most recently by organizing a “Party for Macron”: a protest that began with a sprawling barbecue in front of Paris’s opera house to “celebrate” the young president—depicted in effigy as a buffoonish king—after his first year in office.

La France Insoumise is convinced that through these actions, it can sustain a vibrant movement culture and, in turn, shape a bottom-up coalition capable of taking power. In a political system that tends to underrepresent the far left and right at the national level, a Mélenchon presidential victory in 2022 may be wishful thinking. But by maintaining an energized base—consisting largely of students, low- to mid-level functionaries, and the urban and rural underclasses it seeks to politicize—La France Insoumise may have a shot at imitating the successes of the Front National over the past decade. Although a negligible force in the National Assembly, the FN controls roughly a dozen municipalities in the north and south, and its deputies are highly visible in the European Parliament—it is as a result an immediate presence in many citizens’ lives, and an unavoidable fixture of French political life. It is with much the same goal in mind that La France Insoumise has set its sights on the European and municipal elections coming up over the next two years.

But how exactly does La France Insoumise understand the path from populist community organizing and street theater to political victory? If the movement’s experiments in participatory democracy have shown some promise in building a base, its political strategy has revealed key potential obstacles toward amassing power for the left.

For Mélenchon, populism goes beyond these efforts to encourage participation—it implies nothing less than a total overhaul of the left, and indeed, of the entire political spectrum. Mélenchon has sought to purge his movement of older left-wing ideas and symbols, particularly those of socialism and communism. Supporters at his campaign rallies were urged not to sing the Internationale or fly the red flag. In place of France’s Marxist and marxisant intellectual traditions, Mélenchon has sought to install a simpler philosophy of insubordination, popular rage, or, translating the movement’s name literally, “non-submission.” (In a programmatic interview last September, Mélenchon revised the words of Jean-Paul Sartre—who famously sought to reconcile existential philosophy with the Communist Party line—declaring that “non-submission is a new humanism.”)

Populist strategy invites this sort of symbolic distillation. The idea of insubordination helps the movement fit itself into the national narrative of post-revolutionary France, stretching from the Jacobins to the republican socialists, the antifascist resistance, and the students of May ’68. That narrative is an intentionally expansive one: as Alinsky understood, a political movement that claims to hear the desires of ordinary people can hardly afford to tie itself down to narrow doctrines. “The people” must include those who are not attached to left ideals—people who might mistrust the jargon of historical materialism, but who would happily join in the cries of Résistance! ubiquitous at La France Insoumise’s gatherings.

La France Insoumise has sought to go a step further, rejecting not only the ideas of the traditional left, but also the bulk of its institutions. These include the Socialist Party, long dismissed by its further-left rivals as having been taken in by international finance, but they also include those further-left rivals. Mélenchon has refused all alliances with other left parties, including both the PS and the Parti Communiste Français (PCF, which nonetheless backed his 2017 presidential campaign) as well as the various other environmentalist and far-left groups. And although La France Insoumise has supported a number of local rank-and-file labor actions, this institutional mistrust has often extended even to the major labor unions. At a meeting organized by National Assembly deputy Danièle Obono in support of striking Holiday Inn workers in the Paris suburbs this past February, union leaders were widely denounced as “corrupt.” There is a tendency within La France Insoumise to believe that the people have deemed the entirety of France’s organized left to be illegitimate.

For La France Insoumise, then, populism means not so much to revitalize the beleaguered French left as to replace it. Alexis Corbière, a deputy and prominent spokesman for the movement, told me that La France Insoumise does not rule out all communication or collaboration with other left organizations, but that those who want to work with La France Insoumise must do so on the latter’s terms. As the warring monarchs of Game of Thrones or the podcasters of the “dirtbag left” might put it, they must either “bend the knee” or risk fading into obscurity.

During his presidential campaign, Mélenchon was often compared in the international press to Bernie Sanders, and his supporters in France to this day claim the Vermont senator as an inspiration. But to the extent that Sanders has sought to use an insurgent movement in order to capture a center-left party from within, Mélenchon’s scorched-earth populism bears little resemblance.

There are good reasons for La France Insoumise to seek to overcome the intellectual and symbolic baggage of its predecessors on the left. Traditional French Marxism not only suffered from a rigid philosophy of history, but also sidelined questions such as feminism and the environment that matter deeply to today’s voters, particularly the young. For this reason, some, like Mouffe, see Mélenchon’s movement as embodying the pluralist, while still deeply egalitarian, worldview the French left has sought after since the Parti Socialiste’s turn away from Marx in the 1980s. But La France Insoumise’s commitment to pluralism only goes so far. Convinced of the superiority of its populist strategy, it has rejected potential allies with a dogmatism to rival that of the old left. The results so far bring the viability of this understanding of populism into doubt.

If one believes Mélenchon’s public statements, La France Insoumise has already amassed the popular support to make it the leading force of the French left. The mainstream media, despite all his scorn for it, conveys a similar impression. It has become commonplace to pronounce the Parti Socialiste dead with full sincerity, leaving La France Insoumise’s deputies as the most visible representatives of the left in the news cycle.

But the movement’s self-centeredness has often cost it—and the broader left—dearly. La France Insoumise claims that it has the recipe for winning back working-class voters in France’s northern and southern regions where the far right has built its strongholds. But failure to coordinate legislative campaigns between La France Insoumise and the PCF, for example, led to neither party qualifying for the second round in key races in and around Marseille last summer. As a result, it was Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! that defeated the far right for these seats. Of last year’s 577 parliamentary races, only one saw La France Insoumise face the Front National in the final round.

On labor issues, La France Insoumise’s strategy has proved even more counterproductive. During the first rounds of demonstrations against Macron’s reforms to the labor code last fall, friction between Mélenchon and union leaders was often cited as a reason for the left’s failure to mount a concerted opposition. Anticipating a similar dynamic between La France Insoumise and organized labor, the leader of the far-left Nouveau parti anticapitaliste Olivier Besancenot brought together in March a coalition of unions and smaller left organizations in opposition to Macron’s attacks on rail workers and public servants, leaving Mélenchon on the sidelines. A pattern has emerged in which La France Insoumise plays a marginal role in each new labor action, preferring to host its own event at another time. Ruffin’s barbecue for Macron, widely seen as a competing protest action to the May 1 rallies held four days earlier, was a case in point; the event also brought out apparent tensions between Ruffin and Mélenchon, not one to welcome a rival within his own movement. La France Insoumise continues to insist that it is the sole champion of the left in France. But the pattern of strikes and protests during Macron’s first year in office suggests that the movement is actually only the most prominent among a pluralist French left that Mélenchon is—as of yet—unwilling or unable to lead.

Though La France Insoumise likes to give the impression of complete unanimity—another worrying sign—there has been some dissent against its exclusivist approach. Notably, the deputy Clémentine Autain has expressed support for a return to the more politically pluralist model of the Front de Gauche. As an inter-party alliance, this earlier movement reflected a diverse slate of ideas and programs. In late May, La France Insoumise did start to show some openness toward collaborating with other movements on the left, participating in a rally known as the “people’s wave.” But the movement’s leadership still holds the view that such alliances create a partisan “soup of logos” that alienates undecided voters. In no small number of last year’s races, though, coordination on the local level with Communists, greens, and other far-left groups was precisely what got La France Insoumise candidates elected. In general, the movement has seen its greatest successes in areas where the left has been historically dominant, such as the banlieues of Seine-Saint-Denis. However radically French politics have shifted in the past year, La France Insoumise’s victories have so far depended on the left’s long-time constituencies, lending credence to Autain’s view that the party cannot afford to make enemies of other activists it hopes to lead.

The flaws in Mélenchon’s model of populism go deeper than electoral strategy. Mélenchon has railed against corruptible, hierarchical institutions such as parties and unions, and promised a movement that connects the people directly with its leaders. But this “Jacobin” notion of political power—once again, something Mélenchon shares with Macron—rejects the intermediate institutions that, as the historian of French democracy Pierre Rosanvallon has argued, have been built by the left over generations as protections against top-down power. Meanwhile, the kinds of “horizontalist” participatory structures La France Insoumise has experimented with, though energizing, are not always as democratic as they seem. (The movement’s goal, Mélenchon asserted last fall, is “not to be democratic but to be collective.”) As the Canard Enchaîné, France’s best-informed source of political gossip, reported in April, a petition for more internal democracy within La France Insoumise was rejected by former Mélenchon campaign spokesman Manuel Bompard. Despite the many innovative aspects of his movement, Mélenchon is in many respects an heir to a long French tradition that has combined radical attempts at popular democracy with potentially anti-democratic concentrations of power.

La France Insoumise’s populism may not be the threat to European democracy it was made out to be during the 2017 campaign. Its experiments in participatory democracy may yield crucial new means of reengaging a disillusioned French public, as well as fresh ecosocialist ideas and innovative uses of digital media. But if the energy generated by these initiatives cannot ultimately be harnessed by a broader pluralist left—if La France Insoumise insists on having to singlehandedly rebuild the left from scratch—it may only perpetuate the disarray that has brought France’s left to the point of weakness where it is today.

Jacob Hamburger is a Paris-based writer and translator. He runs the blog Tocqueville 21, which focuses on global democracy in the twenty-first century.