Constitutional and Ecological Populism : the case of Jean-Luc Mélenchon
After renewing left-green populism in 2017 under the political advice of Chantal Mouffe, his left populist strategy continues. Melenchon’s social-green politics and populist strategy takes core in two books he published on these subjects : “The Green Rule: For Eco-Socialism” in 2012 and “The People’s Era” in 2014. His rhetoric presents classic elements of populism shaped under environmentalism, sovereignty, anti-globalism, valence issues, and the people’s embodiment into a political savior against international elites and mainstream parties.
By Victor Alembik, PhD Candidate at the University of Milan and the Network for the Advancement of Social and Political Studies (NASP), and founding member of OPUS Initiative.
Who is Mélenchon?
Running for the third consecutive time since 2012, French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, seems like an indefatigable populist leader, a political campaign addict, who from the margins of the radical left managed to revive his falling political career after quitting the very centrist Socialist Party in 2008. In fact, 70 years old Mélenchon is no outsider in French politics- the first Trotskyist-Lambertist in his youth, terrific organizer, head of publication and radio for his organization. He joined the Socialist Party in 1976, and became the youngest elected senator at 34 in rural Essonne in 1986. Slowly carving his way upwards within the Socialist Party, but incapable of winning the party’s direction over the party’s social-liberal wing represented by François Hollande, he left the party in 2008 and created the “Left Party”, making him a political outsider. This move allowed him to “de-professionalise” or “de-class” himself through ideological radicalisation, political marginalization, and rupture with traditional mainstream parties: radical-left outsider with the Left Front in 2012; inspired by Chantal Mouffe he switched to left-populism in 2017 with France Insoumise; and governmental populist left in 2022. In 2017, his strong charisma and rhetorical skills, associated with a clear political program “The Future Together”, helped him surf on the demise of the Socialist Party and reached 19.6% of the votes, an incredible score for a radical left candidate in France. Thus, in this 2022 French Presidential Election, Mélenchon is eyed by all psephologists who wonder if his 2017 performance could be repeated under his (once again) new banner and its populist name: the “Popular Union” supported by the “Parliament of the Popular Union” — a parliament of experts, activists, citizens, and public personalities supporting him. From this introduction, one should differentiate Mélenchon from the too-often-repeated perspective of the populist leader as an “outsider”, but rather a “professional career politician”. Mélenchon’s politics holds on mass performance and public speeches; activism, strike, and actions alongside labor unions; policy expertise and strength of his political program. For this reason, his political posture is complex to grasp due to its populist rhetorical reshaping of extremely precise policies and institutional measures; and due to his capacity to embody multiple postures simultaneously: a populist, an activist, a professor, an expert, and a professional politician. Nevertheless, his politics hold on two main ideological pillars: reinventing the people through the constituent assembly and recreating harmony between humans and nature.
Reinventing the people: the Constituent Assembly as a “populist moment”
Staunch critic of the French Vth Republic, which he qualifies as monarchic, Mélenchon’s main political goal is the reinvention of the “people” through the gathering of a constituent assembly in charge of writing the Constitution of the next French Republic. Mélenchon’s constitutionalism and ideological commitment to the left set him far beyond the minimalist definition of populism based on the tryptic of “the opposition between the people and the elite ; the embodiment of the people in a leader ; the sovereignty of the people” (Mudde). As a radical left leader, he reinterprets basic Marxist theory of the proletariat’s struggle in populist terms: the revolution becoming the messianic victory of the “people” over the elite; the proletarian dictatorship becoming the establishment of true democracy. His constitutionalism describes the necessity for “the people to reconstitute itself” through a “Constituent Assembly” which will allow “each and everyone to attribute itself and others the rights to which they agree to give and take” in order to build a “secular, democratic, social and ecologist Sixth Republic”. To quote Mélenchon’s wonderful alter-ego Michel Vidal in the political series Baron Noir: “Marx said the proletariat will be revolutionary or won’t be ; I say the people will be constituent or it won’t be”. In order to understand that reinvention of marxist theory under populist terms, one must come back to Mélenchon’s obsession with Robespierre and the French Revolution, from which he built his conceptual framework on Michelet’s historical interpretation of 1789 : “The convocation of the Estates General of 1789 is the true era of the birth of the people. It called on the entirety of the People to exercise its rights.”. Here, the populist leader is reinstating the founding principles of the French Revolution through the direct political intervention of the “people”. Therefore, the political emergence of the “people” engages a historical rupture by granting it its own political responsibility of being history’s most sincere actor. The people are not an object of politics anymore, but the very political subject and actors of history. The convocation of a “Constituent Assembly” aims at reconstituting the people through a “populist moment”, with the possibility to solve the salvating battle between the “people” and the corrupt or capitalist elites through the creation of new political institutions made for and by the “people”. For this reason, Mélenchon’s populism reaches far beyond the binary opposition of the “people” and the “elite”, but is composed by strong philosophical conception of democratic institutions, historical and materialist dynamics, and constitutionalist principles which shape and are shaped by the “people”. By engaging the people as the democratic engine of history, he allows for a rhetorical reappropriation of both democracy and history, and thus bring a moral, historic, and political responsibility onto the people, which, despite its oppression, is compelled to resist, fight, and transform society under humanistic and progressivist aspects.
Recreating Harmony between humans and nature
Mélenchon’s democratic vision of reinventing the “people” through a new constitution built under the eco-socialist ideal of the Green Rule: “we cannot take more from nature than it can reconstitute”. His “Meeting on Water”, published on YouTube in November 2021, during the fourth Covid lockdown, presents a great case study of left-green populist rhetoric. He develops his vision of an eco-socialist sovereignty through the opposition of international and national industries to the local savoir-faire of “people” who defend their local ecosystem against the industry’s threat on land erosion, deforestation, water pollution, people’s traditions, local knowledge, and local biodiversity (46:17). In a lyrical populist tone he declares “we know how to fight these issues since forever, don’t come and tell us what to do” (42:47). By equating the people to their environment as a singular body, he frames a united benevolent “humanity” in its quest to retrieve its “nostalgic nature”. Industries’ threats on the environment become equated to a threat on the physical body of the “people”; a threat which requires protective and solidarity responses. He absolves local “people’s” responsibilities in maintaining environmentally unsustainable farming techniques, by enforcing the sole blame on external malevolent agents which impose both harsh labor conditions (social left) and environmental devastation (green politics). The external threat offers the possibility for the “people” to unite under a reactionary and survivalist collective narcissism against future environmental disasters provoked by the environmentally unaffected elites. This collective narcissism against the environmental crisis presents a unique opportunity for collective action, innovation, and knowledge building shaping the “people” as the only transformative force guided by pure ideals and willing to preserve the environment, through its forefront engineers and technicians ready to build the green infrastructures that will benefit the whole (52:25). He thus wishes to create an intergenerational environmental pact for the “people” by appealing again to the “people’s” local and technical knowledge, his direct source of information “the people explained to me, I didn’t know” — which he quickly opposes to the elite’s incapacity to listen to the “people” and understand their local culture. He thus portrays himself as a common man, with common sense, who listens to the “people”, understands their local knowledge, and who builds collective ecological solutions directly with the “people”. Against him, against the “people”, the old parties and their paradigm of economic growth and policy-making which threatens the harmony inside and between nature and the “people” (which are equated), thus threatens their whole and survival.
The re-establishment of harmony with nature requires the re-establishment of democracy under the rule of the “people”. On one side, he describes the amoral conspiracy-prone capitalist elites who “come, steal and never repair” the infrastructures or the environment, which he rephrases under semi-marxist terms: “Capitalism externalize cost — education cost its for the state, environmental cost it’s for the people — they take, they steal and they are responsible for nothing. And you saw during the pandemic how they made money on your back” (58:56). The attribution of blame and guilt requires immediate reparative and executive actions against each of the system’s greedy supporters: the party-system, the liberal economists, the mainstream parties, the industrialists, and the capitalists. Each represents a direct threat on individuals and on the “people’s” life and environment, due to the elite’s never-ending thirst for profit accumulation which leads them to a never-ending conspiracy against “us” (59:29). The elite parties become far more than those “who steal our jouissance” (as Zizek would say) they steal our future, they are unstoppable, incompetent, decadent; lacking technical, local, and environmental knowledge; complicit, immoral, corrupt, and profiteers of elite capitalism and environmental destructions; supportive through their policy-making. Facing the corrupt elites who lead the people to their death, Mélenchon appears as an incredible savior, a messiah who offers a vital choice, the choice of survival by bringing a left-green government in place who can save the environment. An argument he currently uses heavily to convince left voters to join him in the last days before the elections. To conclude, Mélenchon thus creates the imaginary of the “people” as the engine of a history based on environmental transition and preservation, and social harmony, against the immoral anti-environmental money-obsessed capitalist elites. This engine of history is put into action through the ideal of the Green New Deal and the VIth Republic which will rebuild harmony between nature and the people, and in-between people. Will this strategy allow him to pass the first turn of the elections ? Answer on the 10th of April.