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The importance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s populism in France

23 September 2020

3 mins

by Rayane Khaled

The French presidential election of 2017 was illustrated by the rise of populists according to the media. And this is a global phenomenon: the emergence of such political parties and actors has spared no continent since the 2010s. The political world seems to be in turmoil; in Europe social democratic parties are being swept away and citizens are increasingly turning to new parties that have never been in power.

  • How to be populist?

The aim of this essay for The Populist Challenge to Democracy module taught by Giorgos Katsambekis was to understand to what extent and how Jean Luc Mélenchon, the leader of ‘La France insoumise’ (Unbowed France) a man of the left, was implementing a ‘populist’ strategy. I also wanted to understand how his approach was eminently democratic, far from the received idea that describes populism as intrinsically anti-democratic. To do so, I decided to rely on the discursive approach of Ernesto Laclau, with whom Mélenchon was close during his lifetime. To give an accessible definition of populism, it is the creation of a frontier between ‘the People’ who share common demands and an elite supported by traditional parties. Like other approaches, populism is primarily a strategy for the conquest of power, and is not, in my view, a political platform.

  • Methodology

To answer this question, I relied on primary sources: the Unbowed France manifesto, Mélenchon’s books, and his YouTube channel program where his speeches and weekly review are available. In order to analyse this large amount of data, I used a method learned in class: thanks to a colour code I systematically underlined the characteristic elements of populism that I could find in the documents.

  • Populism, a winning cocktail to revitalize the left and its ideals!

Through my many readings it became clear that Mélenchon creates himself a populist moment by opposing head-on ‘the people’ and an oligarchy. That’s why a notorious element of Mélenchon’s populism is that he refuses the left label: the traditional left support the Oligarchy. Representing the Left is not representing the People; it excludes the ones who were disappointed by the Left and the abstentionists. In order to federate the people, and aggregate their demands, Mélenchon proposes a democratic renewal: the 6th Republic where the people would take power, through a Constituent Assembly that would guarantee the right to dismiss elected officials. This central element of the platform of Unbowed France makes it a unique left-wing populist party in Europe. Indeed, Mélenchon wants to experiment with the ‘democratic revolution’ like those seen in Latin America carried by the 3rd populist wave of the 2000s as in Venezuela or Ecuador. For Mélenchon the revolution to come won’t be the old socialist revolution. That’s why the populist strategy means to go beyond left and right and to create a new political field, and this strategy, although criticized, is efficient: 20% in the 2017 presidential election. Is this a strategy to reinstate for 2022 to finally reach power?


I am currently preparing a master’s degree at Sciences Po Lyon, one of the 10 Institute of Political Studies in France. My research interest is in electoral phenomena and the political participation of citizens. During my 5-year mandate at the Youth municipal Council of Villeurbanne, I promoted youth participation through different projects. During the 2019/2020 academic year, I did my Erasmus+ exchange at Loughborough University where I had the chance to follow courses of exceptional quality and originality, especially the module The Populist Challenge to Democracy taught by Giorgos Katsambekis.

Image by Burak Aydin

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