Je ne peux pas blairer Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Je ne peux pas le saquer. Translation: I cannot stand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. I cannot bear the S.O.B. I have had a tenacious loathing of Jean-Luc Mélenchon since I first became aware of his existence 18 years ago (in 1994 to be exact). Jean-Luc Mélenchon incarnates in his person everything I despise and execrate in the hard left, and particularly the French hard left. He is a thoroughly despicable, reprehensible individual, both politically and personally, and is absolutely the most despicable, reprehensible major personality in French politics at the present time. Period.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, allow me to elaborate. I have been intending to spell out my views on Jean-Luc Mélenchon almost since I launched this blog a year ago but have been putting it off. But it can’t be put off any longer, as the first round of the presidential election is happening tomorrow and in which Mélenchon will obtain a much higher score than anyone—myself included—would have thought possible even three months ago. I also noted with pleasure that my general view on Mélenchon is shared by various persons I respect, e.g. my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer, who informed his readers last week that “I do not like this man” (see here; for more of Art’s commentary on JLM, see here and here). In my approval of Art’s sentiment, I pledged to write on the matter within a week. So voilà. I will try to be brief. And if this sounds like a diatribe par moment, so be it.
There are several domains in which Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ignominiousness is laid bare. I will cite five. The first is the authoritarianism of his political reflexes and ideological world-view. To put it succinctly, the more I see Jean-Luc Mélenchon on television—speeches, interviews, debates—and the more I read about him, the more I am convinced that he is a potentially dangerous person who, were he ever to come to power—which will thankfully never happen—, would rule as a dictator or try to. Sarkozy’s Bonapartist hyper-presidentialism would pale by comparison. The political scientist Marc Lazar said recently that the Communist party in France may be all but dead but that a communist culture still exists on the French left, and that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has achieved the singular feat in his presidential campaign of awakening this culture and giving it a unified political expression.
Mélenchon was of course never a member of the PCF. As a youthful militant in the Lambertiste sect of French Trotskyism, where he cut his political teeth, Mélenchon was naturally opposed to the “Stalinist” PCF. But this hardly made him more of a democrat. The name of the Lambertiste party at the time was, after all, the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (emphasis added). For those who know the sectarian world of French Trotskyism well—and many moderate lefties who were youthful Trots or cocos do (including numerous personal friends and associates)—, the Lambertistes were the among the most sectarian, authoritarian, and conspiratorial in their internal culture, and with a cult of personality around the sect’s founder and guru, Pierre Boussel-Lambert. Variations of the word “crazy” (e.g. fou, taré) have been used to describe them by many lefty friends over the years (including former Trots, though from more “mainstream” Trot groups, e.g. LCR). Now, there are former Lambertistes who turned out okay politically and are fine individuals to boot, e.g. Lionel Jospin and the historian Benjamin Stora (the latter I know personally and like). And for reasons having to do with my private life, I have socialized on many occasions over the past decade and a half with current Lambertistes, who are perfectly fine people on the human level. But their politics are insane. Debating politics with a Lambertiste Trot is as exasperating as with a Tea Party GOPer. They are totally ideological and live in an alternate reality. As arguing politics with them is both aggravating and pointless, it is to be avoided at all costs.
Mélenchon may have left the Lambertistes 35 years ago but was profoundly marked by their culture and world-view, and which shapes his political action to this day, so one learns in the sympathetic, though not hagiographic, biography Mélenchon le Plébéien, by journalists Lilian Alemagna and Stéphane Alliès. Politically and psychologically speaking, Mélenchon did not leave the communism (small c) of the Lambertistes (as did Jospin, Stora, and others). On the level of ideology, one aspect of the Lambertiste culture, in addition to Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism, is exaltation of France’s revolutionary heritage and, above all, the French Revolution. It is normal for French lefties of all stripes to speak with pride of France’s revolutionary tradition. It’s a French lefty thing. Un peu folklorique mais pas bien méchant. Mélenchon is particularly virulent in this exaltation. The heritage of the French Revolution is inscribed in his political “genetic code” and over and above Marxism (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 27). But it’s not the Revolution of 1789 so much as that of 1793, of the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror, and the guillotine. Mélenchon’s revolutionary references are Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Babeuf. Lovely. Saint-Just is indeed a Mélenchon “favorite” (here). French communism did not need Marxism-Leninism to be infected with the totalitarian germ. To see Mélenchon on television last week, telling David Pujadas with a crocodile grin and visible delectation that, yes, if he came to power he would indeed impose a 100% tax on all income over €300,000—including that of movie stars, athletes, best-selling authors, etc, not to mention Pujadas himself—, that a Mélenchon-led state would in effect confiscate all wealth over that ceiling, sent a chill down my spine. Not that I would in any way be affected by this personally (though I can always hope I would if good fortune were to come my way…). As a social democrat I am naturally for progressive taxation, reducing inequality, and doing something drastic about the obscene, ill-gotten wealth of investment bankers and the like. But there’s a difference between a socially useless hedge fund manager accumulating wealth in the nine figures and a hard-working, talented, creative, and/or entrepreneurial person who makes several hundred thou a year. The difference is not apparent to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and he is not open to hearing and pondering divergent views, which would be immediately dismissed with a discrediting label (e.g. libéral).
The man does not accord supreme value to liberty or democracy, as a member of his ministerial staff during his two year stint in the Jospin government told Alemagna & Alliès (p. 212)
Je ne suis pas en train de dire que c’est un apprenti dictateur, mais pour lui, dans l’exercise du pouvoir, la question démocratique est secondaire. Mélenchon avec le pouvoir absolu aujourd’hui me ferait peur. C’est sa tradition jacobine, plus guesdiste que jauressienne. À la fois autoritaire et centralisatrice.
Mélenchon may venerate Jean Jaurès but he is indeed closer to Jules Guesde in his conception of socialism. His undemocratic reflexes are reflected in the lack of regard he displays toward those who are not on the same ideological page with him: his many adversaries in the PS until he quit the party, les Verts—his animosity toward Daniel Cohn-Bendit is longstanding—, centrists, and of course the right. Mélenchon has been on record for twenty years in calling for the banning of the Front National. Calling for the legal interdiction of a political party supported by many French citizens, that has always played by the rules of the game and never engaged in illegality, and whose candidate will likely obtain more votes than he tomorrow… I am not exactly a fan of the FN but to call for its outlawing is profoundly undemocratic. In fact, I find the mere idea both shocking and reprehensible. I have been continually amazed over the years at the number of French lefties—including good friends—who have approvingly pronounced Saint-Just’s infamous line “pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté.” France may have the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen but it does not have a First Amendment, or at least a First Amendment mindset among those who should have it. But if the FN were to be banned—and for what reason, other that one does not like it?—, why not Philippe de Villiers’s MPF too while we’re at it? If one, in fact, applied Saint-Just’s dictum to the letter, then the most logical parties to ban over the past several decades would have been the PCF and Lambertistes! Obviously. But
idiots people like Jean-Luc Mélenchon don’t seem to get that. Nor do they grasp the truism that what goes around comes around, i.e. the same reasoning employed by your political enemies can so easily boomerang against you.
A notable aspect of Mélenchon’s undemocratic mindset is a reflexive intolerance to social categories other than his own and to behaviors and beliefs he does not share. E.g. his scheme to confiscate even modest wealth—€300K is certainly a nice income but it’s not that much—is indicative of a hostility to the world of business and entrepreneurship. As one of his political associates recounted to Alemagna & Alliès (p.99) of Mélenchon’s years as head of the PS federation in the Essonne
les questions de pognon et de relations avec les entreprises faisaient flipper. Une peur panique !… Il refusait même de simples rendez-vous avec un patron, toujours persuadé qu’on allait lui ouvrir une valise de billets. Alors qu’il aurait pu juste discuter avec certains de la situation économique !
We’re not talking about CAC40 captains of industry here, or some rentier issuing from les 200 familles. The kind of patron Mélenchon would have encountered at the time would have more likely been from a local PME. But in Mélenchon’s vision they’re all cigar-chomping capitalists out to corrupt politicians with briefcases of cash. So he refused to even meet with them. Needless to say, this is indicative of a caricatured vision of society, an abject ignorance of the same society, an economic inculture, and an utter closed-mindedness. A man who thinks this way has no business exercising political responsibility at any level and in any way, shape, or form.
Another case in point of Mélenchon’s intolerance: as a militant républicain and intransigent laïc, he was of course a supporter of laws banning Islamic veiling in public spaces. Par for the course in France. Mélenchon does have a special relationship with the Maghreb and Maghrebis, which is nice, but his fondness for the latter does not extend to those who are particularly pious in the practicing of their religion. He has spoken of an almost physical discomfort he feels when seeing women in hijabs on the street (I can’t find the reference for this so take my word for it). A physical discomfort at seeing a woman with an Islamic headscarf (not a face veil, which is another matter). I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by French (female) friends over the years. My response: well, why don’t you engage them in discussion, ask why they cover themselves up, maybe hear them out on the matter (which I’ve done numerous times myself)? Show some interest and maybe a little curiosity. But it’s one thing for an ordinary citizen who doesn’t know much about Muslims to have this epidermic reaction, and quite another for a politician of the left, who is normally close to Muslims, and hails from the Maghreb himself. Total intolerance.
And then there’s his detestation of spectator sports. Mélenchon does not like soccer. That’s perfectly fine. One is hardly obliged to have an interest in soccer or any other sport. But he can’t leave it at that
Il faut dire que Jean-Luc Mélenchon ne s’intéresse pas du tout au football et n’a toujours vu dans ce sport que des «antihéros du sport, gorgés d’argent, planqués du fisc, blindés d’ingratitude». Pour ce marxiste, le football n’est rien d’autre que l’«opium du peuple», et il ne comprend pas que la lutte des classes ne franchisse pas les portes des stades: «Ça m’a toujours choqué de voir des RMIstes applaudir des millionnaires.» (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 95; emphasis added)
This is breathtaking. Mr. Mélenchon claims to identify with les couches populaires but he manifestly knows little about them, except what exists in his caricatured, ideology-addled brain. And how judgmental of him. Even his PCF allies—who know well that the working class likes soccer and supplies most of its players—don’t understand him on this. Again, what intolerance and lack of curiosity, not to mention empathy.
Mélenchon may not have a concrete knowledge of the working class but he does want to replenish its ranks, even if it means forcibly tracking a given number of schoolchildren straight into working class employment. As Ministre Délégué de l’Enseignement Professionnel (vocational eduction) in the 2000-02 period, Mélenchon attacked the collège unique and argued for allowing the tracking of some seventh graders toward an early school-leaving certificate (BEP), and ending the possibility for high school students in the vocational stream from entering that of students bound for higher education (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 203). My, how progressive of him. A vision straight out the 1950s PCF.
One gets the idea here of Mélenchon’s authoritarian and intolerant political reflexes and world-view. Related to this—and this is the second domain I will cite—is his fondness for authoritarian regimes. His enthusiasm for Venezuela’s caudillo Hugo Chávez is well-known, as is his support for the Castro regime in Cuba (and which he has refused to qualify as a dictatorship). In December 2010, MEP Mélenchon stormed out of the European Parliament in Strasbourg when it awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas (who was denied an exit visa by the Cuban government to receive the prize). Mélenchon’s explanation of his act: “Le Parlement européen est embrigadé dans des croisades anticommunistes qui m’exaspèrent.” This in 2010… An old friend of his, Renée Frégosi, further explained his pro-Castroism
Pour lui, la démocratie n’est pas l’essentiel. C’est le mouvement populaire qui est plus important que les institutions. (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 271)
Mélenchon also has a political fascination with China. As his ministerial collaborators remarked on a trip Mélenchon took there in 2001
«C’est quelqu’un qui aime l’ordre, poursuit l’ancienne conseillière [Françoise Castex]. Et la Chine est quand même un petit pays [sic] bien tenu !» Que le représentant du Parti communiste chinois passe avant le recteur dans l’ordre protocolaire, «ça nous faisait rêver», plaisante-t-elle. «Le vrai truc qui le rend béat d’admiration, c’était que 1.2 milliard de Chinois étaient organisés par 13 personnes. Ça, il n’en revenait pas», murmure Didier Leconte, son ancien chef de cabinet. (Alemagna & Alliès, p.207-208)
If one doubts that Jean-Luc Mélenchon holding the reins of state power would be a cause for worry, indeed alarm, just reread and meditate on the above passage. And while one is at it, meditate on the Mélenchon campaign poster above, on the slogan—”Take power”—and the image of the man himself. In my admittedly subjective estimation, he resembles at best an Eastern European Communist party apparatchik; at worst, he looks rather more sinister. Posters around town have been defaced, with a little moustache added, such as that worn by the leader of Germany from 1933 to ’45. Now I hate these kinds of comparisons and normally refuse them, whatever the context (vide Godwin’s Law). But I have to say, the physical resemblance here is uncanny.
Continuing with his backing of authoritarian regimes, there is Mélenchon’s fondness for Arab dictatorships. He supported the cancellation of the electoral process in Algeria in 1992, said nothing critical of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia until January 2011, enthusiastically greeted Bashar al-Assad at the airport in 2001 when his Socialist party associates declined to make the gesture… Well, one gets the idea.
The third domain of Mélenchon’s loathsomeness is his anti-Americanism, anti-Americanism defined not as opposition to America for what it does but for what it is. A detestation of America for its very existence and being. Le Monde, referring to Mélenchon’s “visceral hatred” of the United States, thus quotes him as saying
“Les Yankees représentent tout ce que je déteste. Un empire prétentieux et arrogant, composé d’incultes, de chefs pitoyables.”
Qualifying this as beneath contempt is too mild. If he were to say this in my presence, I would be tempted less to respond with reasoned argument than to lui flanquer un coup de poing sur la figure. When Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche held its founding congress in November 2008, not a single speaker made the slightest mention of Barack Obama and his victory earlier that month (I watched much of the congress via live streaming). The French public was captivated by Obama and his election, and particularly the Socialists. But not a peep from the mélenchonistes. Mélenchon’s anti-Americanism goes back to his childhood, when he dreamed of being a Cosmonaut (but never an “astronaut!”). Alemagna & Alliès inform us (pp. 26-27) that Mélenchon attributes his precocious anti-Americanism to “une hérédité familiale [mais] sans pouvoir donner plus de raison”…
Mélenchon does in fact give a partial explanation of his anti-Americanism, as a reaction to America’s “imperialism,” so he insists, and the fact that it has military bases all over the world. Insofar as America’s global military posture is in large part a heritage of the Cold War, when it stationed troops in Europe to protect it from the Soviet Union, if one sympathized more with the latter, then the opposition to America on this score is at least ideologically coherent. But does Mélenchon’s horror of the US here have to do with a principled opposition to imperialism or rather the fact that it’s America that has the power to be imperialist and not France? This reminded me of Hubert Védrine’s recounting of the time a European foreign minister counterpart told him that if France had the military might of the United States its behavior would be much worse. And indeed, one does recall how France behaved when it was militarily powerful, establishing not only a colonial empire but also waging war on its neighbors. It would be interesting to know what Mélenchon, who sacralizes the French Revolution, thinks of the revolutionary wars of the 1790s—initiated by France, BTW—, when after pushing the forces of the First Coalition out of la patrie the French revolutionary army continued into the Rhineland, Netherlands, Italy, Egypt… Hey, when you’re on a roll, why stop? And then there were the Napoleonic wars of the next decade, Napoleon being a product of the Revolution, bien entendu.
This leads in to the fourth domain of Mélenchon’s ignominiousness, which is his nationalism bordering on the franchouillardise. Nationalism is not something one associates with the left in America but is strong in the communist culture in France. Mélenchon, as a fervent républicain, is an equally fervent believer in France’s mission universelle. During his ministerial days, when his counterpart from Luxembourg responded to a disdainful remark he had made by telling him that he was displaying “l’arrogance française,” he replied, “En effet, en effet…” (Alemagna & Alliès, pp 205-206). This bit from blogger Riwal Ferry is particularly on target (as is the rest of his post; h/t Arthur Goldhammer)
Malgré son talent, son humour dévastateur, son énergie, sa culture, j’ai beaucoup de mal avec ce bonhomme : il personnifie la franchouillardise jacobine et centralisatrice, l’arrogance du « gallus » perché sur ses ergots qui pense avoir raison contre le monde entier sous prétexte qu’il fait davantage de bruit que ses voisins de basse-cour.
And then there’s this morsel, of Mélenchon railing on against the new members of the EU following the 2004 enlargement
“Les nouveaux entrants… qu’ils aillent se faire foutre ! Les Lituaniens? T’en connais un, toi, de Lituanien? Moi, j’en connais pas!”
The fifth domain of his loathsomeness—and maybe the most marked—, is the brutality of his personal style. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a trash-talking, foul-mouthed bully, on a par with Jean-Marie Le Pen. One has only to see him in action to grasp this. His verbal violence was brilliantly dissected by the journalist-blogger Titiou Lecoq after reading Mélenchon’s best-selling 2010 pamphlet Qu’ils s’en aillent tous! (which I could not bring myself to even pick up). The title of her review: “Pourquoi Mélenchon me file de l’urticaire” (Why Mélenchon gives me hives). Mélenchon’s penchant for showering insults on those who disagree with him was taken up in turn by Libération’s excellent Brussels correspondent Jean Quatremer. And then there was Mélenchon’s now (in)famous 2010 insulting of a young journalist intern as a “petite cervelle” who simply tried to ask him a question (watch here). How anyone can have the slightest consideration for Jean-Luc Mélenchon after watching his contemptuous, foul-mouthed treatment of this stagiare is beyond me.
Lest I forget, there is also Mélenchon’s machismo and problem with women in politics (which Ségolène Royal, who was on the receiving end of his insults, knows well). This from Alemagna & Alliès (p. 261)
Ah, les femmes ! Jean-Luc Mélenchon est si mal à l’aise avec elles en politique, et peut parfois se laisser déborder par des réflexions misogynes, pour les regretter aussitôt.
Oh yes, one last thing: Mélenchon’s uncritical veneration of François Mitterrand. The left naturally remembers Mitterrand with fondness—at the Hollande rally last Sunday each mention of his name aroused cheers—and Socialists do not hesitate to evoke his memory. But Hollande and others in PS have taken their distance from some aspects of his legacy and know that his record was mixed, both politically and personally. I gave my own bilan last year of Mitterrand’s years in power (here), on the 30th anniversary of his victory. That Mélenchon lacks a critical spirit toward Mitterrand and the many black spots on his record attests to, well, a lack of a critical spirit.
I have much to say about Mélenchon’s politics and the political role he is currently playing but will come back to it later, as he will be around for a while—and will be a problem for Hollande and the Socialists. I will conclude by asserting that under no circumstances would I ever vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Ever. If he were in a face off with Marine Le Pen, I would vote blanc. If he were to make it to the second round against Sarkozy, I would vote blanc. But if that race were tight and the outcome uncertain, I would have no choice but to vote for Sarkozy.
MISE AU POINT: En exprimant mes sentiments négatifs à l’égard de Jean-Luc Mélenchon, je tiens à préciser que je ne porte pas de jugement contre ceux qui pensent différemment que moi. J’ai beaucoup d’amis, étudiants et même membres de la famille qui l’aiment bien et ont l’intention de voter pour lui demain. Ils sont des citoyens libres de leur choix et qui ont évidemment le droit de voter pour qui ils veulent. Je n’ai rien à dire là-dessus et n’en pense pas moins d’eux.
UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer has a commentary on my post here.