The lesson of Mélenchon on the left: less socialism, more social democracy | Paolo Gerbaudo

In 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise sat alongside Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the United States and the Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn as part of a “wave left-wing populist movement that combined charismatic and radical leadership. Strategies. He channeled the anger of French citizens over austerity policies – blamed on Brussels bureaucrats – and proposed an exit from the EU (in case the treaty change is not achieved) and NATO. Mélenchon organizes meetings in the style of enraged tribune of the people in Mao’s costume, and attacks the French elites: “the caste and its puppets” and the “ignoble” politicians of the socialist party. While his presidential candidacy secured an impressive 19%, only 11% voted for the party in the legislative elections.

The situation is very different now. A kinder Mélenchon leads the Nupes (New People’s Ecological and Social Union) coalition which edged out Macron’s Ensemble coalition by a hair’s breadth in the first round of French legislative elections this week – 26.1% to 25.8%. This is an astonishing result for the left after decades on the fringes. While Mélenchon remains unlikely to win enough MPs in the second round to claim the role of prime minister in an uneasy cohabitation with President Macron, a powerful argument has been made for a leftist alternative to Macron’s neoliberal centrism. .

Key to it all is Mélenchon’s own evolution from the populist insurgent accused of dividing the left and adopting a nationalist stance, to the politician who succeeded in uniting the left for the first time in 20 years and to convince the public that she is fit for government. Other leftist projects that emerged in the turmoil of the 2010s may want to learn from this.

Mélenchon’s 2022 strategy has moved from geopolitical issues to subsistence policies: raising the minimum wage to €1,500 monthly after tax, lowering the retirement age to 60 (Macron wants to raise it from 62 to 65 years) and the introduction of price controls to protect populations from the cost of living crisis – pragmatic demands compared to the previous electoral cycle. As University College London professor Philippe Marlière has noted, the Nupes program is “radical reformist”, and unlike the 1972 left-wing unity program, it does not specifically call for a “transitional break with the capitalism”.

At the same time, Mélenchon, 70, has softened his revolutionary image. He adopted a presidential tone, presenting himself as a competent statesman and aware of the need to find compromises with other parties and even certain sections of the capital. The radical EU and NATO policies of 2017 that were particularly popular with some left-wing activists – but drew widespread criticism – were put on hold as part of a common alliance agenda. In addition, Mélenchon highlighted his statesmanship credentials as a longtime politician and former minister and his will to govern.

Mélenchon’s trajectory illustrates a broader trend on the European and international left: many former left populists have now become de facto radical reformists: toning down their more identity-based rhetoric and anti-establishment antagonism to focus on concrete policy solutions that they offer. In Spain, the left has gone from the charismatic, sometimes exuberant leadership of Pablo Iglesias, to the more reassuring figure of Yolanda Díaz. Díaz is a labor lawyer from a family of trade unionists, but she is widely respected for her administrative skill and for implementing an effective leave program during the pandemic and on her promise. pass the reform of temporary contracts. Significantly, its keyword is “dialogue(dialogue): she insists on the fact that while defending the interests of the workers, she wants to find a compromise with the entrepreneurs in the general interest of the country.

During the 2010s, Sanders launched strong attacks on the establishment of the Democratic Party in the United States. But he has since tried to forge an uneasy alliance with Joe Biden against the obstructionism of centrist Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have blocked the US President’s flagship social package Build Back Better. He now heads the powerful Senate Budget Committee and has tried to shift economic policy discussions in Congress in a more progressive direction.

In the UK, there has not been such a maturation of the the left populism of the 2010s into radical social democracy. On the contrary, the Labor leader, Keir Starmer, has almost completely abandoned the politics of Jeremy Corbyn without even doing much to try to co-opt some of his most promising young leaders and thinkers, as Biden has tried to do from the start. other side of the Atlantic.

The former leaders of the left-wing populist movement of the 2010s softening their stances doesn’t mean their original movement was wrong. It was a necessary moment of recomposition and reconstruction of a new left identity for the 21st century. But the focus is now shifting from identity building to the more laborious task of forming coalitions and implementing policies rather than charismatic appeals. Many people involved are aware that they may have been wrong to label as “radical” and “uncompromising” policies that were often common-sense social-democratic offerings – if they had been given a softer branding, they might also have attracts people who do not necessarily define themselves as “anti-capitalist”.

Various opinion polls show that in Europe and the United States, a large part of the electorate is looking for politicians and parties proposing redistributive socio-economic policies to combat soaring inequalities. These are policies that were once offered by mainstream centre-left parties and figures who have since mostly abandoned any pretense of being social democrats and enthusiastically embraced pro-market liberal politics – as is the more evident precisely in the case of Macron. The new left that emerged during the 2010s can now fill this void. Socialism may have to wait, but social democracy is there to be claimed.

  • Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and at King’s College London and the author of The Great Recoil