Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his “creole” populism
Mélenchon’s references to “creolisation” mark a turn in his populist discourse. He challenges the hegemonic interpretations of what it means to be “republican” in France in favor of a more inclusive universalism.
by Thomás Zicman de Barros, Sciences Po, Center for Political Research (CEVIPOF) — for OPUS Initiative for Young Scholars on Populism
It has already been over ten years since Jean-Luc Mélenchon moved closer to left-wing populism. In 2010, he claimed to be a “populist” for the first time. However, the way he took on this type of discourse was rather reserved back then. In 2012, during a colloquium that was held in Buenos Aires inthe presence of left-wing populism’s theorists, including Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Mélenchon expressed some reservations that prevented him from fully asserting himself as a “populist” the reason being that this term is too stigmatised in France.
As a matter of fact, Mélenchon fully embraced left-wing populism only six years ago in 2016. No longer the leader of a radical left-wing party, he then became the chief of France Insoumise, a movement with outreach beyond any partisan framework appealing to the “people” against the “elites”. This was the tone of his 2017 campaign. However, as the 2022 elections approached, one could notice a recent development in Mélenchon’s discourse that entails promising consequences both for France and for left-wing populists in general: the references to a “creolised” populism, or a “creole” populism.
Mélenchon mentioned “creolisation” for the first time in September 2020. He borrowed the term from the Martinique writer Édouard Glissant, who passed away in 2011. The “Sixth Republic” that Mélenchon has advocated for a long time then gained new contours: it would be “creolised”. This is, in fact, an important turning point in “insoumis” populism, indicating a transformation in discursive strategy, as insoumis populism then shifts from emulating radical right-wing populism, which reaffirms a hegemonic and fixed vision of French identity, to transforming what France means and what it means to be French.
From sovereigntist populism to “creole” populism
When France Insoumise was founded, it had the same goal as most radical left populists in Europe: to broaden its electoral base. The divide between the people and the elites is likely to be more unifying than the opposition between the left and the right. The problem however is that an important part of this plan included winning over voters from the other populist force in France, this one on the radical right and represented by Marine Le Pen. The resulting diagnosis, shared by Chantal Mouffe, indicates that the strength of radical right-wing populism in Europe is symptomatic of a post-democratic political context where the political options — ranging from Nicolas Sarkozy to François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron — not diversified enough. In this way, the radical right would have gained ground through anti-elitist rhetoric capable of luring citizens who would not necessarily be reactionary but looking for alternatives. And the populist choice made by the radical left is the wish to embody the very anti-elitist option.
The challenge faced by Mélenchon and the populists of the left in Europe was to go after this electorate without becoming hostage to discursive elements that are dear to him. during his 2017 presidential campaign Mélenchon tried to attract this electorate by appealing to patriotic symbols. In his rallies, scarlet flags were replaced by the blue, white, and red flag.
One could argue that the use of “creolisation”, a term often evoked in his current presidential campaign, means the insoumis’ populism has understood that reproducing the sovereignist discourse has its limits. In any case, concessions of such nature would not be very fruitful as few voters on the radical right would adhere to the insoumis’ speech. Where left-wing populism can most certainly show its strength is by mobilizing the abstentionists — in particular, the abstentionists in the urban periphery, who form a large popular sector too often despised and disenfranchised. To attract these constituencies, Mélenchon’s “creole” populism advances into challenging the mainstream republican universalist discourse.
Rethinking French republican discourse
Challenging hegemonic interpretations of what it means to be “republican” in France involves talking about racism. Although denied in the official discourse, France is a country marked by structural racism. Structural racism is less associated with the openly racist insults and violence targeted at racialized citizens on a daily basis, but mostly with the obstacles faced by these citizens when it comes to having access to the same living conditions, dignity, and recognition as non-racialized people. If truth be told, the real dimension of French structural racism remains unknown as statistics on the issue are prohibited in France. Nevertheless, this racism is apparent in everyday life, be it at the National Assembly or at a local market, at companies’ high-level boards, or in prisons, both in the rich and poor neighbourhoods of big cities where the streets have different colours.
In a context where such reality is a given but no change, of course, is envisaged on the horizon, Mélenchon is the only figure on the national level who goes against the flow. Unlike all other major political formations, the insoumis take a serious approach toward structural racism in France.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Mélenchon remains very attached to republican references, to their universalist claims. With the help of “creolisation” though, he is able to keep using the vocabulary that pertains to the hegemonic political culture at the same time he can subvert its most common usage.
The “creolisation” evoked by Mélenchon may sound like a rather inappropriate notion to designate a country like France. The term “creole”, which has different meanings depending on the country and region, is associated with the cultures of the colonized territories. However, by quoting Édouard Glissant’s formula, Mélenchon uses it to characterise mainland France. According to him, the “creolisation” of France is not a project. As Mélenchon puts it very well, “creolisation” is not an aspiration because it is already a fact. In France, colours and cultures meet, giving birth to the new, in an endless and indeterminate process. We must only acknowledge and celebrate it.
The force of a more inclusive universalism
If the term “creolisation” shocks, it is precisely because the so-called republican universalism is unaware of its own contingency. The hegemonic republican discourse in France ignores that it is originally based on a secularized, white, masculine, heterosexual Christianity, to which others have to assimilate.
Stating that France is “creolised”, that it is the product of a tense encounter, marked by centuries of colonial violence, but one that carries within it and in day-to-day life the promise of unity, novelty, invention, and endless redefinition of what we are, is to claim another republican universalism. It means pointing to the aporias of hegemonic republican universalism in favour of another paradigm, one that is more universalist and republican, because it is more inclusive. It is not a matter of denying the radical equality of all citizens, nor the secularism of the State, but of affirming them.
In a nutshell, Mélenchon invites one to rethink France’s identity from beyond the fixed frameworks in which we’re used to seeing it. He helps us understand that French identity is in an ongoing process of articulation and transformation. Perhaps it will take years for these ideas to fully develop and succeed in overturning the hegemonic discourse that forms the basis of French political culture. However, if Mélenchon has evoked “creolisation” in his current campaign, it is because these ideas hold undeniable strength. He knows that they are more and more present and will be increasingly so in the world and in France. The left can only win by being at the forefront of this movement.
A different version of this text was originally published on Tocqueville21 and Mediapart.