Thomas Guenole is a political scientist, lecturer at Sciences Po and doctor in Political Science (CEVIPOF). Former member of La France Insoumise, he just published The Fall of Melenchon House: A dictatorial machine seen from the inside (Albin Michel, November 2019).
FIGAROVOX.- By participating in the march against Islamophobia last Sunday, Jean-Luc Melenchon seems to precipitate the fall that you announce in your book. How do you explain the participation of the one who rejected the term "Islamophobia" there is still little? Is it a short-sighted electoral calculation or is it a prisoner of part of its base?
Thomas GUÉNOLÉ.- The most recent opinion polls indicate that today nearly three-quarters of French Muslims do not want Muslim religious rules to be imposed on the laws of the Republic. 70% support the principle of secularism. More broadly, the vast majority do not wish to be a "Muslim community" apart: they just ask to be full citizens, with the same rights and the same duties as the others. And besides, all the attempts to launch a "Muslim party", without exception, ended in electoral beating.
In other words, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of French Muslims do not want communitarianism; and that communitarian activists are therefore absolutely not representative of the people they claim to represent.
Therefore, if Jean-Luc Melenchon's recent flip-flop is an electoral calculation, then this calculation is a mistake. For when the Melenchon House multiplies its agreements with communitarian activists, from a strictly electoral point of view, it shoots itself in every foot: first, it does not win anything for French Muslims; in two, it makes him lose massively left-wing voters who, whether Muslim or not, have remained firm on the defense of secularism and gender equality.
Melenchon shoots himself in each foot.
There is, however, another hypothesis than electoral calculus: that of the error caused by running in a hurry. Perhaps all these LFI MPs signed the call to march against Islamophobia as a whole because they did not read the text with enough attention: they thought they would sign a usual anti-racist appeal, without identify ambiguities. And also, because they did not learn about the ideas of some of the carriers of the text, ideas for the least problematic when one is left. Then, afterwards, Jean-Luc Melenchon will have tried to limit the breakage by finding explanations more or less likely to this catastrophic road exit.
Still, all this is incomprehensible coming from Jean-Luc Melenchon, who pleaded rigorously against the concept of Islamophobia on the grounds that one must have, I quote, "the right not to love Islam". Moreover, there would have been no controversy and no problem if the march and the call to protest had invoked anti-Maghreb racism or anti-Muslim racism, rather than this concept of Islamophobia whose meaning and legitimacy are the subject of controversy.
This whole thing is really a shame. Certainly, during this march, several thousand people marched sincerely against racism and not at all for the communitarianism of some of the initiators.
When you were a LFI executive, you were one of the few to be very clear and very firm in refusing any compromise with communitarians. What is the weight of the indigenous movement inside the movement today?
At LFI and elsewhere, communitarian activists are actually very few. And as I told you right now, the population they claim to defend, in its very large majority, does not want their ideas. To compensate for this numerical weakness and this rejection of their theses by those they claim to represent, they practice a very aggressive entrism: parties, faculties, unions, media, etc.
When a structure goes well, communitarian activists can not have an influence: their entrism has, for example, failed in almost every major media outlet. When a structure is weakened or in crisis, on the other hand, they manage to gain a foothold there: it happened to small parties and unions.
In fact, after two years of accumulated errors, Maison Melenchon is extremely weak. It is a dead star, like those stars whose light you still perceive when they are already extinct. In the aftermath of the 2017 presidential election, it could mobilize at least 50,000 grassroots activists throughout France for a national operation. Currently, it can hardly mobilize 5,000 and is struggling to build lists for the municipal elections of 2020.
The growing influence of communitarian activists is a further sign that Maison Melenchon is weakened.
In this context, while communitarian activists were still firmly on the sidelines of the LFI apparatus right after the 2017 presidential election, today they thrive there. This only facilitates the fall of Maison Melenchon since once again, neither the French in general, nor the French of Muslim faith in particular, want communitarianism.
In other words, rather than a problem in itself, the growing influence of communitarian activists is rather an additional sign of the fact that Maison Melenchon is weakened: the electoral haemorrhage, the massive exodus of militants, the self-destruction of the image of statesman Jean-Luc Melenchon, have probably done too much damage for it to be repairable.
Beyond this precise drift, you denounce "the dictatorial functioning of the movement". Why did you support him for so long?
I joined La France rebellious in the summer of 2017. I did it by ideal, because I was deeply in agreement with the program of the movement: The future in common. I was very enthusiastic and put myself at the disposal of the movement to help. Charlotte Girard, program manager, entrusted me with the political training of the militants in tandem with Manon Le Bretton. For a year I only took care of that. I was in my corner, and especially since the operation of the central unit is extremely compartmentalized. I only had contacts with headquarters for logistical issues, and from time to time to validate the schedule or the speakers.
And then, in the summer of 2018, having volunteered to be one of the LFI candidates for the European election, I started to regularly attend the central apparatus, with coordination meetings, frequent exchanges with executives etc. It was from there that I had more and more red lights lit, as and when I saw.
Such purge to get rid of a too critical frame, is disguised as a disciplinary measure "for having made sexist remarks"; And so on.
It's simple: Maison Melenchon systematically practices the opposite of the values it displays. It is Orwellian. In words, she pleads for a true democracy, for the respect of the rights of the opposition, for the human emancipation. In acts, internally, she practices dictatorial functioning, the prohibition of expressing a critical word under penalty of incurring a "purge", and ways of treating people who are often humanly detestable. For example, in a chapter of my book, I tell you how whistleblowers, who demanded to move to a democratic functioning, were systematically placarded, slandered, banished, or a mixture of the three.
It is sometimes objected that the dictatorial tendencies of Jean-Luc Melenchon were evident as early as 2017. But that is not true. From 2017, certainly, everyone saw that he was obviously a man with a handle and subject to big rages. But the systematic dictatorial internal functioning of LFI was not yet known to the general public.
I am objected more often than my disillusionment should have been faster. But it neglects several things.
First, the work of lucidity is slowed down by the problem of the permanent double language of the frames of the apparatus: such locked instance is disguised in proceedings to the participants "drawn"; such a congress where it is forbidden to propose any other text than that of the management, is disguised as an exercise of participative democracy; such purge to get rid of a too critical frame, is disguised as a disciplinary measure "for having made sexist remarks"; And so on. It therefore takes time to identify a systematic internal newspeak and to identify the authoritarian, centralized, locked reality that it serves to hide.
Then, as I told you, the camera is extremely opaque, partitioned. And executives are often afraid to express their criticism even among themselves. Understanding the actual operation of the machine is therefore physically difficult – and takes much longer.
Finally, if tens of thousands of activists have taken time to leave the insubordinate France, it is also because of denial. When you join a movement by ideal, you must first exhaust all other possible explanations, even twisted, before agreeing to face the fact that it is a vast political swindle that betrays the ideal in whose name you you are engaged.
Jean-Luc Melenchon had met 19% of the vote in the presidential election. How do you explain his collapse? Is it due to his personality or a problem of strategy?
In the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, Jean-Luc Melenchon has come close to 20% despite his strategy, and not thanks to her.
Initially, the Maison Melenchon decided to do, compared to the 2012 campaign, what is called in marketing a "rebranding". They abandoned the vocabulary, message and symbols of the 2012 "Proud to be left" campaign. They replaced all of this with a "Federate the people against the 1%" campaign, with a message beyond the cleavage left-right, soothed on the form. This is called the "left-wing populism" strategy.
Jean-Luc Melenchon remained in spite of himself a candidate of union of the left.
Result: it failed. In January 2017, Jean-Luc Melenchon reconstructs in voting intentions his score of the presidential election of 2012, which means that despite a profound change of message and staging, it is still the radical left electorate he reunites.
This domino effect then occurs: a few center-left electorate voters gradually give up the Hamon vote for the Macron vote, mainly out of fear of Marine Le Pen and in the belief that Emmanuel Macron will be a better candidate for the FN. This lowers Benoît Hamon from 17 to 12-13, until he finds himself in touch with Jean-Luc Melenchon. Therefore the "left useful vote" effect, which usually protects the PS candidate against any rival on the left, no longer plays.
Arrive the debates of the first round of the presidential: Hamon and Melenchon say in substance the same thing, but Melenchon is better on the bottom and on the form. Melenchon therefore passes a few points ahead of Hamon in the polls – presumably a transfer of electorate "left wing of the PS". Finally, in the home stretch, Melenchon having become the best-placed candidate on the left, the "left useful vote" effect is reconstituted in the final stretch to his advantage, and catapults him to almost 20%.
It must be emphasized that, of course, this rise in power would not have been possible without the candidate's talents as a speaker, his extraordinary charisma, and his great talent as a political pedagogue on stage.
In any case, what Jean-Luc Melenchon said was that he was going to unite the people across the left-right divide – but what he did was to be in spite of himself a union candidate from the left. Once we understand this, we also understand that, when House Melenchon interpreted this score as a new base for 20% of adherence to the strategy of "left-wing populism", it was a mistake.
Since Jean-Luc Melenchon had been, despite himself, a candidate for union of the left, it was necessary to form a coalition of the "Popular Front" type in the legislative elections. Instead, insubordinate France preferred to go alone to the legislative battle, which mechanically resulted in a rump parliamentary group. Similarly, for two years, the political message hammered in loop, that of the call to the popular uprising, only corresponded to the expectations of the radical left electorate: that is to say half less than the 20% of 2017, which has contributed to shrinking the electoral space of LFI.
The political situation of Europe is very diverse, without one noting a common dynamic throughout the continent.
Added to this is a specific problem of illegibility of the fixed course. For example, it was in turn a question of refusing alliances with other leftist forces, then wishing them, then refusing them again, and so on. Another example, concerning the strategy "Plan A plan B" against the European Union, there existed from 2017 to 2019 almost as many interpretations as there are spokespersons of LFI. In the long run, this erratic line has inevitably led to voters turning away suspiciously from LFI.
Is the fall of LFI part of a wider European collapse of the left, and whether it is social-democratic, radical or populist?
No, nothing indicates a big European collapse of the left. 2019 has seen several victories. In Spain, the legislative elections were won by the social-democratic left and it has just signed an agreement in principle with the radical left to govern together. In Portugal, the legislative elections were won by the outgoing left-wing coalition. In Italy, without going through legislative elections, a new government was installed, on a coalition of the 5-Stars Movement and the left. We could thus multiply the examples. One could however multiply the examples of success of the right and to a lesser extent of the far right. Neither brown wave, nor blue wave, nor pink wave, nor red wave: the political situation of Europe today is simply very diverse, without one seeing a common dynamic across the continent.