The French call it Mélenchonite, a feverish excitement brought on by over-exposure to left-wing populism.
There was an outbreak of it during the country’s 2012 presidential campaign, when, just a fortnight before the election, the “left of the left” candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was credited with 15% of voting intentions and looked like challenging the Front National’s (FN) Marine Le Pen for third place. Then, suddenly, he seemed to run out of steam in the home straight, and fell back to 11% in the first round of the election, well behind the far-right candidate on 17%.
The 2012 election was a very different campaign from 2017. It was largely a referendum against the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy; a straightforward left vs right contest pitting the Parti Socialiste’s (PS) François Hollande against Sarkozy. The struggle between Mélenchon and Le Pen served as an interesting, though peripheral sub-plot.
This time, and with some polls putting him in third place ahead of the first round of the election on April 23, Mélenchon is pulling out all the stops to be, at the very least, the third man.
Like one of his mentors, Lionel Jospin, Mélenchon began his political career as a young Trotskyite, before joining the PS in the mid 1970s. If that seems unlikely, it should be remembered that, at the time, Francois Mitterrand’s PS shared a common programme with the communist party, the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). A senator from 1986, it was under Jospin’s plural left government (1997-2002) that Mélenchon made his debut as a junior minister. He watched in dismay as Jospin was eliminated from the 2002 presidential race, in part because of a poor campaign, but also because of the presence of two other left-wing candidates who took enough votes from the then-prime minister to see him finish third, behind Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.
Mélenchon shared with Jospin the view that the EU should be a social space, not simply one where the free market and globalisation can proceed unfettered. To that end, in 2005 he led the opposition from within the PS to the EU constitution referendum, while the majority of the party (led by Hollande) backed the “yes” vote. Mélenchon began to draw together a broad alliance of left-wing voters disaffected with social-democracy, communists, and environmentalists, and reached out to the global justice movement, known in France as “altermondialisme”.
There was no space for Mélenchon to develop his ideas in the PS, so in 2008 he quit the party and set up his own: Parti de Gauche. The following year, he was elected a member of the European parliament. He negotiated an alliance (the Front de Gauche) with the remnant of the PCF to back his bid for the Elysée. And although, in the end, his score looked disappointing, it was, along with the renaissance of the FN, the main story of 2012.
Since then, however, things had not been going very well. The Front de Gauche fell apart, largely due to the PCF leadership refusing to put up with Mélenchon’s ego. Electoral performance at local and regional level was poor and even within his own party, support looked to be dwindling.
He was, to a very large degree, rescued by the incompetence and unpopularity of the Hollande-Valls administration, the continued rise of Le Pen and growing support for left-wing populism and altermondialisme. Mélenchon makes no excuses for being anti-elite and Eurosceptic and economically patriotic (though not in the same way as Le Pen), though his insistence on a strong state is different from the new anarchism of other left-wing populisms in Latin America and southern Europe.
In any case, in the spring of 2016 he announced his intention to stand for presidency again, published a political testament called Le Choix de l’insoumission (the choice not to submit) and launched a new political movement, La France insoumise. This is a difficult term to translate into English, but the best rendering I have come across is “France unbowed”. If it sounds a little pretentious to English ears, it works perfectly well in French and has an open-ended appeal, in much the same way as the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s new party En Marche!
Initially, the leaders of the PCF refused to back Mélenchon (and they have been conspicuously absent during the campaign) but they were outbid by the party membership, which voted decisively to back him. This provided him with an organisational network to which he has added an impressive determination to put new technologies and social media to work.
In early February, thanks to a hologram, he managed to appear in two places at once and his presence via YouTube has been enormous. In one of his videos he takes five hours to carefully explain his economic programme of Keynesianism in one country (to be paid for by a hike in the wider tax burden from 45% to 49%).
The television debates have shown Mélenchon at his best. Whatever one may think of his politics, he is a fine orator and master of the put-down, particularly of Le Pen.
There appears to be 25% of the electorate who want to vote for a left-wing candidate, but for many of them now, that candidate is Mélenchon, not the PS candidate, Benoît Hamon. The feebleness of Hamon, the limitations of Le Pen and Macron, and the scandals surrounding the right-wing François Fillon have all worked in Mélenchon’s favour, to the point that some polls had him overtaking Fillon.
And as Macron stalled, too, the possibility of a Le Pen-Mélenchon run-off in the second round of voting on May 7 has been mooted. Within the Fillon camp there is even some concern that centre-right voters might back Macron in the first round to prevent a Mélenchon-Le Pen duel.
This still seems unlikely, but the question remains whether third place is a possibility – and what Mélenchon could actually do with that, if it is followed by a Macron victory. Mélenchon’s policies are so far from Macron’s that a coalition seems out of the question. And a good score for Mélenchon may translate into only a few seats in parliament in June’s general election. But if he doesn’t make the second round, he will certainly ask his supporters to bar the way to Le Pen.
Mélenchon maintains that he can get through to the second round and that he can win. But there is an elephant in the room. If it does come down to a Mélenchon-Le Pen duel, can he really win it? It is by no means certain that centre-right leaning voters would vote for the far left to keep out the far right. Back in the 1930s, there was a slogan among right-wing opponents of France’s socialist (and Jewish) prime minister, Léon Blum: “Better Hitler than Blum”. If Fillon is eliminated, some of them may might feel it’s a case of “Better Le Pen than Mélenchon”.