A recent LabourList article suggested that we in the Labour Party have much to learn from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate who finished fourth in the 2017 French presidential election. It is true that Mélenchon is an outspoken critic of the kind of tax-cutting, job-slashing economics that lie at the heart of both Emmanuel Macron’s presidency and austerity in the UK, and so holds an attraction for some people in our party. However, adopting him as a role model would in reality be a profound mistake. Beneath the veneer, Mélenchon is a profoundly divisive figure whose attitude to the press, failure to deal with racism on the left and rejection of internationalism should serve as warning, not an example, to our party.
Mélenchon has a deeply worrying attitude to the EU. Internationalism has to be at the core of socialism – it provides us with our moral compass and lies at the heart of why so many Labour members are campaigning for a People’s Vote. At the same time, it is the driving force behind the need to reform the EU along more socialist lines. Yet Mélenchon is not inspired by this positive value. His publications include Bismarck’s Herring (The German Poison), in which he describes Germany as “a threat” and the EU as its “new empire,” and he lets this nationalistic hatred drive his attitude to European unity. Rather than supporting the close links between the two republics that have brought peace and prosperity for 70 years, Mélenchon prefers to whip up xenophobia in a transparent attempt to appeal to Marine Le Pen’s voters. Nationalism is opposed socialism and Labour members should reject its supporters, not praise them.
Mélenchon spends far too much time pandering to the conspiracy theorist fringe of politics. Labour’s positive alternative has to engage with the hopes of the many for a better future. Yet Mélenchon’s approach is to whip up hostility to the press, and accuse anyone who dares investigate him of “act[s] of political repression.” Having laughed at the far-right’s prosecution for corrupt practices, Mélenchon’s reaction to the same charges when levelled at him and his party was to stand in the street screaming, “I am the Republic” and “Do you know who I am?” Coupled with his aggressive attitude to press scrutiny – including calling journalists ‘spies’ sent by the CIA – this all contributes to a public image that is combative, divisive and dishonest. Instead of falling for these mistakes, our party can campaign for socialism without the conspiracy, engaging with the positive aspirations of the many and not the tin-hatted delusions of an angry few.
Futhermore, Mélenchon’s approach to minorities – particularly Muslims and Jewish people – should not be imitated by members of our party. In another naked attempt to win voters off Marine Le Pen, Mélenchon has enthusiastically backed France’s burqa ban, telling the New Statesman that “to walk in the street entirely covered is a denial of the human right to see someone’s face.”
Whilst support for radical, authoritarian laïcité is far from unique on the French left, this does not represent the clean break with the policies of the last decade that Mélenchon’s British idolisers claim to support. Likewise, he has done nothing to dissuade anti-semites from the left. Instead, Mélenchon has spread the sort of vicious conspiracy theories that these people feed off of, and frequently denies France’s role in the Holocaust. Instead of cosying up to racists in this way, the British left needs to rid itself of their influence.
In short, we should avoid importing Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s politics into the Labour Party. We should remain and reform the EU on more egalitarian lines, not rip up treaties due to the nationalist and xenophobic beliefs that drive Mélenchon. Our message needs to be confident and positive, inspiring hope and rejecting the conspiracy-spreading, bunker mentality that Mélenchon espouses. And most of all, we need to rid the British left – and our party – of any and all forms of racism. For these reasons and more, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and those who copy him, will not be the saviours of our party – they will be our downfall.
James Kelly will be editing LabourList while Sienna Rodgers is away.