Mélénchon. What’s that about? My answer is, basically, “performing Frenchness”, but we’ll come to that. Le Monde has a really good article on the degree to which the Front de Gauche and the Socialists are in violent agreement. Some of Mélénchon’s key social policy proposals, after all, appeared in Ségoléne Royal’s manifesto back in 2007, and they called her a weak-sauce Blairite. The PS is keen to play up the convergence, partly in order to compete for votes with the FDG and partly to signal that co-operation in government is a possibility. (In 1981 and again in 1997, the PS operated in coalition with the Communists, so there is a historical precedent for the extreme Left to be in government.)
The man himself vigorously denies that he’s trying to influence the broader Left. But he would say that. In getting concessions out of the PS, he needs to play hard to get. Further, in trying to drag the Overton window leftwards, it makes sense to increase the perception of extremism around his policies. But on quite a few issues, there is a sort of synergy emerging. Hollande wants to renegotiate the new stability pact, Mélénchon wants to put it to a referendum. The high probability that it would be rejected by a referendum would strengthen the French hand in renegotiating.
On the other hand, they disagree strongly about budget policy, and the price for joining a coalition currently includes signing up to support the PS’s budget.
Here’s a discussion of Mélénchon in the context of French leftwing history. This is rather what I mean by performing Frenchness. French political speech is marked by the politics of the orator – rather than a big tent, one rallies the people, implicitly at some vast mass gathering at the cross-roads of history. That’ll be history with a capital H, of course. (The horse is optional.) And so you get grey centre-right IT-director figures like François Fillon speaking texts that read like nothing but blood and thunder.
Mélénchon’s campaign has been all about oratory and mass meetings, the public theatre of the republic, implicitly opposed to the dubious politics of parliaments and bureaucracies. The big question about it is whether the emergence of a (reasonably) united left-of-the-left movement will tend to split the Left’s vote, or whether it will tend to mobilise it and legitimise more radical ideas. See also, the notion of resistance.
This ambiguity ran through 20th century French politics. Sometimes the Socialists and Communists reinforced each other, as in the Popular Front and the 1981 campaign. Sometimes, as in 1978 and 2002, they fought the real war against each other and the Right profited by their disunity. Of course, Mélénchon’s movement isn’t emerging, it’s re-emerging – the point is well made that it consists of the surviving Communist Party organisation plus the newer ones set up by successive stars of the far Left.
Mélénchon’s own discourse does tell us something about what he plans to do with the crowds he rallies in the public squares, the visible synthesis of the Republic and the Left. He regularly compares Hollande to George Papandreou, and refers to the concept of the Zapatero trap. This idea, which originates in the PS, basically says that to succeed, a left-wing government in France must take the European Union with it, rather than being stuck in an EU dominated by the neoliberalism of the 90s. My take here is that he wants to hold Hollande’s feet to the fire, and also to haul the European Overton window towards the sunshine.