In the most volatile French vote ever left populist Mélenchon rallied in the polls

An atmosphere of tension descended over Paris after a police officer was shot dead Thursday on Champs Élysé​e​s (Isis claimed responsibility) feeding into the uncertainty of the new likely scenarios after this coming Sunday polls — including a runoff between Le Pen and Mélenchon. Who is Jean-Luc Mélenchon?

Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French far left Parti de Gauche and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, attends a political rally in Dijon, April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta
Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French far left Parti de Gauche and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, attends a political rally in Dijon, April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta

The April 23 vote will go down in history: because of the number of potential candidates for the runoff, because it marks the end of the V Republic two-parties system and because, depending on the outcome, its shock wave could hit the EU’s holding together and the economy of its 27 members, markets, NATO, US-Europe-Russia relations, and even the fate of Syria's war-battered people.

Hot on the heels of the two front runners, center-left outsider Emmanuel Macron (24%) and far right Marine Le Pen (23%) are now conservative François Fillon (18.5%) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (18), a non-socialist non-communist hard-left candidate.

For the whole spectrum center-left to conservatives the nightmare is now a Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff on May 7. Mr. Mélenchon jumped in just four weeks to 18% from 12%. The candidate’s charm? A compelling program? Hype? It certainly is a feeling that in some points overlaps with that of the party at the other political extreme, the Front National, such as a desire to disempower the political and financial establishments, to overcome a “German-imposed” austerity, to bring back to the nation tasks now centralized by the EU such as monetary policy and to protect the national industry and its jobs. To the ears of those who are tired of "the two traditional parties sharing all power" his program is music, that is, unorthodox promises and never mind, Trump docet, if they are unrealistic or if the candidate changes them in the process.

"Mélenchon is the new 'French risk'”, his project is "devastating for France”, the Paris stock exchange “would be in for Black Monday": these are some of the comments one reads on the press. Even President Hollande went as far as mentioning a "Mélenchon hype" in "a campaign that smells bad".

Who is the candidate everyone fears except Mrs. Le Pen? After leaving the PS in 2009, Mr. Mélenchon became member of the European Parliament for a coalition between his Left Party and the Communist Party. Inspired by Spanish Podemos and US Democrat Bernie Sanders’ campaign, in 2016 he launched France insoumise.

His program is far-reaching. It overlaps with that of the FN where it proposes, for example, lowering the retirement age to 60 or leaving the EU should negotiations to turn it on its head fail – but wait, a couple days ago he denied intending to leave the EU. In others parts it is similar to that of Socialist Benoît Hamon like in a proposal for a VI Republic with less powers for the president and more referenda.

Besides addressing many environmental issues, the program includes lowering corporate taxes and VAT on staples, setting a 90% tax for income brackets over €33,000 a month, eliminating patient’s fees to healthcare access, a working week of 32 Hours, more funds to address unemployment and hiring 200,000 new officials including teachers and law enforcement staff.

His program would cost the government €16 billion (compared to Macron's €1.8 billion) -- and this if spreads – which Mr. Mélenchon confused with interest rates in a TV TF1 appearance -- do not rise.

His foreign policy and defense program draws the most criticism, if not derision. Some of his proposals are very detailed, like reinstating a 9-12 month draft for the 18-25 years old, while others are vague, like FI’s solutions for the war in Syria. In late 2016 Mr. Mélenchon stated that the war was being waged for "the oil and the gas pipelines". Bachar-Al-Assad’s government, for which he has no criticisms, is, he said, "under attack by a self-defined Islamist army," and in his view the conflict does not include ethnic or religious factors. Therefore, goes his reasoning, after defeating ISIS the conflict could be solved at the UN or through elections that excluded the factions now in the field. He did not have any comments on the Syrian people, not even after the last lethal gas attack.

His emphasis on peace reaps much success, in particular among the young, but his views on Russia are worrisome for many. Mr. Mélenchon maintains that he could "entertain good relations with Putin to avoid war," like de Gaulle’s with Stalin and Mao. Putin, he said, is not a friend, but still "a partner, regardless of his domestic political regime.” At any rate, it is time for France "to turn the page of its Atlantic tropism."

This would also “require to quit NATO," Mr. Mélenchon told reporters at the end of March at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégies, as well as the IMF and the WTO, and favor a world bank for development – but on quitting NATO he changed his mind last week. France should not align, he states, but he does so by commending the Latin-American Alba Alliance formed by Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, some small Caribbean countries (which benefit of very cheap Venezuelan oil) and Chávez’s Venezuela, which he still seems to admire even now that its democracy turned into a make-believe.

Podemos’ inspirer, politologist Chantal Mouffe, who helped draft his thinking, believed that he needed "an alternative and radical narrative based on equality" because "citizens no longer see the difference between right and left."

For his critics, Mr. Mélenchon is a left-wing populist skilled at using social media to his advantage. His message undoubtedly gets through. Partly this owes to expert Sophia Chikirou who suggested that he uses holograms to multiply his presence, and that he shows himself "human" sharing, for example, his quinoa salad recipe (it went viral). Partly it is merit of the man himself. He has a ready witty reply and a sense of humor: "They say my win will bring a nuclear winter, a grasshopper plague, Red Army tanks and a Venezuelan landing."

The more his opponents attack him, the more he positions himself as the only genuine popular… non-communist candidate. At a rally at the Old Harbor in Marseille on Sunday 9 April, under a fine Mediterranean sky, his around 30,000 supporters sang La Marseillaise rather than The Internationale and waved the Tricoleur rather than red flags. It goes that they had been asked to do so. From far one could think of a Front National gathering, and in fact Mr. Mélenchon has been targeting its voters lately, especially workers.

He could win in a runoff with Mrs. Le Pen because the center-left and moderate voters would never vote Fn. The same would happen if the challenger was ultraliberal François Fillon. Others, however, could decide not to vote at all.

In the meantime, many are having fun -- or energizing themselves -- playing Fiscal Kombat, a video game created by some Mélenchon supporters. The main playing character is Mélenchon: to fund his policies he goes hunting for the money of "oligarchs and politicians", including former presidents, FMI directors, politicians who evade taxes and heirs of big corporations. Until Sunday this will be a virtual scenario, after that who knows.


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