Arthur Goldhammer asks the question in linking to an explanation in Marianne by David Djaïz, a lefty civil society actor, who argued that while Mélenchon offered “des réponses plutôt convaincantes” to the economic insecurity of les couches populaires, he was mostly silent on their cultural/identity insecurity, i.e. he could not, unlike Marine Le Pen, respond to their fear of immigration and the perceived undermining of French identity. What is needed, according to Djaïz, is to reconquer “l’imaginaire collectif” of the left
par l’action militante et syndicale, par l’éducation populaire, par la formation politique. Mais cela ne peut se faire que sur le temps long et dans un climat apaisé.
This discourse reminds of me of my gauchiste college days of the 1970s, where lefties—invariably from the middle and upper-middle class—, having studied Lenin’s What Is to Be Done, would talk about the need to change the consciousness of the American working class and provide it with the necessary leadership to bring about socialism. Sure. Art Goldhammer does not find Djaïz entirely convincing:
what is needed is not a revival of the “collective imaginary” of the left but rather a commitment to “collective realism,” which recognizes that the globalized economy cannot be rejected, reversed, or “protected” against but must be conquered by abandoning old ways and taking advantage of France’s comparative advantages. That means change, and it means bucking the conservatism of some segments of the working class. Mélenchon failed because he reinforced that conservatism, because he fed the fantasy of revolutionism rather than the reality of politics
Tout à fait. I will add to Art’s critique. One of main factors limiting Mélenchon’s appeal to the broad couches populaires—that put a ceiling on his potential vote—is the nature of his class base, which is heavily comprised of fonctionnaires in the professions intermédiaires and salaried, unionized employees in publicly owned enterprises (SNCF, EDF, La Poste, etc), or those that were in the nationalized sector until the wave of privatizations of the past two decades (and where the CGT and other syndicats are still present in force). This is the aristocracy of the working class in the semi protected sector of the economy—with its special pension regimes, well-endowed comités d’entreprises, and the like—, and who have mostly attained middle class status (as with the working class heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s films; Guédiguian was, not surprisingly, a big supporter of Mélenchon’s candidacy). Employment in public enterprises used to be entirely protected from layoffs but such is no longer the case, or looks like it will no longer be so, with the juridical transformation of a number of them—including big ones such as EDF, GDF, and La Poste—into sociétés anonymes governed by the Code du travail, i.e. with the same juridical status as the private sector. The state may remain the sole or majority shareholder but juridically speaking the way is paved for an eventual privatization in the future. The employment of a large and ever-increasing number of contractuels in La Poste is a sign of things to come. These erstwhile insiders with their tenured employment are feeling precarious, with their special pension regimes and other acquired rights dans le collimateur, and are fighting to maintain their status and privileges. They are the Front de Gauche’s core constituency—thus Mélenchon’s pledge, entre autres, to titularisé the tens of thousands of contractuels at La Poste—and were out in force in the march on the Bastille on March 18th.
The point here is that Mélenchon’s base is conservative, not revolutionary—in that it seeks to conserve something, to make sure that things do not change—, but also that it has little to do with the larger swath of the couches populaires who are truly in a precarious situation. The kinds of lower class voters attracted to Marine Le Pen’s siren song are not the same as those who voted for Mélenchon. It was salutary that the latter made a pitch for workers tempted by the FN but it was not likely to bear fruit. Mélenchon may have had a populist rhetoric but he was fundamentally an institutional candidate and with an institutional base of economic insiders. Those on the outs were not going to go for that. In this respect, it may be noted that those who voted for Arlette Laguiller and Olivier Besancenot in past elections—and particularly the former—did not transfer as a bloc to Mélenchon. A certain number of them may well have voted for Marine (as an anti-system vote of outsiders).
BTW, I’ve been outre-Atlantique since Monday and while I’m following the French campaign as closely as possible on the net, I haven’t been able to tend as much to the blog. And when it comes to Sarko and Hollande, NPR doesn’t have the same level of coverage as France Inter. Things will be back to normal toward the middle of next week.