From the Streets to the Presidency: A Review of a Long-Term Study in Mexico. Interview with Hélène Combes

Cover of De la Rue à la Presidence

On 2 June 2024, Mexico will hold presidential elections. There is little doubt that the country will elect a woman president. Only three candidates are running, two of whom are women: one (Claudia Sheinbaum) backed by the ruling party and the other (Xóchitl Gálvez) by a coalition of the main opposition parties. In this interview, Hélène Combes reflects on her new book De la rue à la présidence. Foyers contestataires à Mexico (CNRS Editions, 2024), in which she offers a long-term study of the emergence of the new Morena party in Mexico. In this 15-year study, she followed Claudia Sheinbaum in particular, who is now the overwhelming favourite for the country’s next president.

How did your book come about?

I think in a way what makes this book original, and perhaps what is also its strength, is that there was no intentional genesis. I didn’t decide at some point, say in 2015 or 2018: “Well, there have been 15 years of mobilisations in Mexico City. A new Morena party has been created. I’m going to look into it and find out what happened”. From 2006, when the story told in this book began, I was spending a lot of time in the field, sometimes several months a year. I followed these mobilisations, with all the uncertainties inherent in collective action, on the ground. By following and observing not only the successes, but also the forgotten failures, and all the organisational tinkering that went into the construction of the Morena party, which was obviously obscured by its victory in 2018, I have produced an analysis that is temporal and nuanced, showing the trial and error and uncertainty that ultimately led to a success that was hard to predict.

The research was built up along the way, and the writing also drew on thinking done elsewhere. In particular, I wrote two other books during my fieldwork: Sociologie du clientélisme with Gabriel Vommaro (La Découverte, 2015), which examines popular political practices and the controversies they generate, and Les Lieux de la colère, a collective work co-edited with David Garibay and Camille Goirand (Karthala, 2016), which looks at how space is taken into account in mobilisations.

Constitution - Zocalo - square, Mexico, Decembre 2018

Your book begins with an encampment that lasted 48 days in Mexico City’s Zócalo Square, organised by supporters of Manuel López Obrador to protest against the outcome of the July 2006 presidential election, in which their protégé was defeated—an unprecedented protest on an unprecedented scale. You worked specifically on the spatial dimension of this mobilisation. Could you elaborate on this idea?

Let me say first that it was a massive camp. First of all, it occupied the entire central square, the Zócalo, which is bigger than the Place de la République in Paris. Then, all along the historic centre up to Alameda Park and along Reforma Avenue up to Chapultepec Forest, for five kilometres, there were big tents, organised by federal state and by district, where people camped out or came for the day.

At first I was interested in the spatial organisation of the camp. How was the camp populated? How were the tours organised? How did activists move around depending on activities in the camp? I wrote my first article about this. Then, after 2011, came various studies on the Arab Spring, Occupy, and los indignados in Spain, and certain colleagues and I began a dialogue about the specificity of Occupy activism. In this second phase of my reflection, when I was writing this book, it became clear that taking space into account in mobilisations could not be separated from social origin or gender. This meant taking an interest in the exported sociabilities of the different neighbourhoods of Mexico City, which is a huge and very diverse city. I wanted to understand the singular effects of urban history. In some neighbourhoods, for example, urban mobilisation has historically been led by women, while in others it has been characterised by a more virile militancy of occupation. Years later, this continues to have an impact on the way in which people get involved in encampments (Chapter 1, De la rue à la présidence. Foyers contestataires à Mexico ) and also on the way in which protest movements develop in working-class neighbourhoods (second part, Chapters 4 to 7).

The spatial dimension therefore remains present throughout the book, particularly in the second part, which focuses on the biographies of two men and two women, ordinary activists, and shows how everyday space, professional space, and activist space intersect in the appropriation of the city.

How did the camp contribute to the mobilisation of supporters? And how, in turn, did the mobilisation foster relationships between activists (and between them and the local population) that were nourished by this kind of sociability?

One of my interviewees, Agustín, compared the camp to the birth of civilisation. First you have to provide security and supplies, and once that stage is over, the camp can look like a big popular celebration. It’s also this temporality that interested me: I tried to show how my interviewees experienced the camp in very different ways, sometimes in a festive mode, sometimes in a form of activist asceticism. One very important point I'd like to stress is that occupation activism is like a magnifying glass that helps us understand the specificities of engagement in Mexico City and, I think, more generally in Latin America. Occupation is the work of the working class, while the middle class is responsible for organising cultural and intellectual activities. The middle classes generally go home to sleep, while the working classes are there and hold the place. This seems to me to be a constant in Latin American mobilisations where, in the context of highly unequal societies, the question of class membership is not sufficiently taken into account in the analysis of the division of militant labour. It is the working classes who manage the occupation and what it means in terms of waiting and expectations. Following the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Javier Auyero, we can examine the question of expectations in mobilisation, which is an original aspect of my approach. However, unlike them, I see it not only in terms of domination, but also as an invisibilised skill.

Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico, 18 May 2023

Another important point is the family dimension of the mobilisations. This camp also had a special feature: it took place during the school holidays, in a city where very few working-class people go on holiday. It was a huge open-air leisure centre, as Agustín pointed out. The start of the new school year was as much a factor in its cancellation as the result of the electoral court, which definitively declared López Obrador the loser. This dimension of family activism is essential and is present and analysed throughout the book. It is a feature that differs from what is often studied in the “classics” of collective action on European or American terrain.

Could you introduce the people involved in your study and explain how you chose them?

It’s a very long study, spanning over 15 years. The vagaries of life and my writing choices contributed to my selecting a small number of interviewees from what was originally a much larger sample.
There are two main groups: a group of leading political figures and a group of ordinary activists. In both cases, I followed them over the years at events and through interviews.

In the group of leaders, the first was Claudia Sheinbaum, who is now a presidential candidate in Mexico. She was the organiser of the Adelitas mobilisation (Chapter 2). These women’s brigades began by blockading the Senate to prevent the vote on the law that they believed would privatise the national oil company PEMEX (which is a vital part of Mexico’s public finances). They then set about organising an alternative referendum in the working-class districts of Mexico City. This mobilisation was unique and partially successful.

Another key figure in the book is Elena Poniatowska, winner of the 2013 Cervantes Prize for Literature (one of the highest awards in the Spanish language), writer, columnist, and companion to all the mobilisations. She brings an often mischievous point of view to the interviews I conducted with her. I also drew on her writings to feed my narrative.

Of course, I also followed López Obrador throughout the period, especially at a time when no one else was following him. I even went on tour with him, which I describe in a section of Chapter 3, Campaigning with the “Legitimate President”.

Finally, two political officials, Javier and Agustín, whom I mentioned earlier have a special place in this book. I shared various activities with them on each of my visits. They gave me an insider’s view of the situation, which is one of the original aspects of my approach.

The second group consisted of ordinary activists. In the end, I chose four of them from a sample of around twenty activists who had already been selected following a survey carried out at a demonstration, during which 300 questionnaires had been filled in. So these were four ordinary activists, two men and two women, of different generations, living in very different parts of Mexico City, which allowed me to question the forms of territorialised activism and the moral economies of activism that are constructed locally

International Women's Day in Mexico city, 8 March 2024

Mexico, never the most avant-garde country when it comes to women's rights, is preparing to elect a woman president. What do you think about this?

I think that Mexico is a country that is not very well known in France, a country that is often exoticised; I have the modest hope that this book will contribute a little to a better understanding of Mexican political life.

It’s a huge country, a paradoxical country, a complex country. And when it comes to women’s rights, I wouldn’t put it quite that way. In the 1990s, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, to which Claudia Sheinbaum belonged at the time, introduced gender quotas and encouraged women to run for office, especially through proportional representation in parliamentary elections: women who often came from social movements or civil society, which had a ripple effect throughout the political class. Twenty-five years later, in 2018, Mexico was one of the few countries in the world to have a legislature (Senate and Congress) with absolutely equal representation of men and women. I’m using politics as an example because that’s what I study, but it’s true in many other areas (academia, cultural life, etc.). It's precisely because there is this very feminist political class that has conquered very important spaces that we also talk about feminicides in this country and that a feminist movement has emerged, sometimes against the same political class. These phenomena are never linear.

Claudia Sheinbaum, candidate of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena, the party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador), seems to be the favourite. She is relying on the outgoing president’s legacy, but will she be able to break free from it? What kind of policies do you think she will pursue?

Sheinbaum has a long history of working with López Obrador, who today, at the end of his term, continues to enjoy extraordinary popularity ratings, which the candidate is obviously relying on. She was his Minister of the Environment in Mexico City (2000-2006), then she accompanied him in the adventure of the “legitimate government”, this shadow cabinet that is a means of continuing to contest elections, which I study in Chapter 3, where she was Minister for the Defence of National Heritage (2006-2012), at a time when many political leaders no longer believed in Obrador. She has a strong relationship with him, as she explains in the interviews presented in the book. But if she wins the election on 2 June 2024, I think she can really put her own stamp on her future government.

Sheinbaum capitalises on the president’s record, but her proposals also draw on her management of Mexico City, where she was mayor (2018-2024). López Obrador has a very nationalist streak while Sheinbaum’s political practice is highly transnational. For example, she makes much of the many awards she has received from international organisations for her management of the capital. Environmental issues are not a priority for López Obrador; they are for Sheinbaum, who has a doctorate in engineering and specialises in climate change and ecology. The situation is also likely to be different when it comes to accommodating the feminist movement, which is currently very dynamic in Mexico, as elsewhere in Latin America. Stay tuned!

Interview by Corinne Deloy.

Read an extract of the book here.

Cover picture: Cover of the book De la rue à la présidence. Foyers contestataires à Mexico
Photo 1: Constitution - Zocalo - square, Mexico, Decembre 2018. Photo by Marcos Botelho Jr for Shutterstock.
Photo 2:  Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico, 18 May 2023. Photo by israel gutierrez for Shutterstock.
Photo 3: A women during a demonstration in Mexico City on International Women's day, 8 March 2024. Photo by
Octavio Hoyos
for Shutterstock.

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