The strange revival of France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon

9 April 2022

8:50 PM

9 April 2022

8:50 PM

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is on the march once more, rising up the polls and laying bare the ineptitude of the Socialist party. While their candidate in the presidential election, Anne Hidalgo, is stuck on two points, Mélenchon is on 17, behind only Marine Le Pen, on 23, and Emmanuel Macron on 26. It was a similar story in the 2017 election when the veteran left-winger received 19.6 per cent of votes in the first round, while the Socialist party’s Benoît Hamon mustered a risible 6 per cent.

There’s a contradiction to Mélenchon in that while at 70 he is the oldest candidate in the race, he is the most technical savvy in getting his message across. On Tuesday evening he repeated his 2017 hologram trick, addressing an audience live at the Grand Palais in Lille while his 3D image was beamed onto stages in 11 towns or cities across the country, from Le Havre in the north to Nice in the south. There was also a mini hologram initiative launched on social media, using Instagram and Twitter to urge voters to cast their ballot on Sunday.

‘We are aiming for a mesh across the territory,’ explained Bastien Lachaud, the organiser of the event. ‘Jean-Luc Mélenchon or one of his holograms will be less than 250 kilometres from every French person.’

For some French, being 250km from Mélenchon – even if it is a hologram – is uncomfortably close. They hold that his agenda of social justice and economic redistribution, championed by Francois Mitterrand’s government in the 1980s, is to blame for the decline the country has experienced this century. It’s no surprise that for voters able to remember most clearly the difficulties of that decade, the over-70s, Macron is the most popular candidate, whereas Mélenchon scores best with the 18 to 24 demographic.

Mélenchon joined the Socialist party in 1976 and was a ‘Mitterrandist’ in the 1980s. He left the party in 2008 for a combination of reasons, Europe being an important element. In 2005 he had led the left’s ‘Non’ campaign when the new European Constitution was put to a vote in a referendum. His side won but the political elite ignored the result and complicit in the chicanery were some influential figures on the left, including François Hollande and Ségolène Royal. Mélenchon remains hostile to Brussels and was one of the few French political figures to give Brexit his unequivocal support, using the Leave vote to call for France to hold its own referendum.

Disillusioned with the Socialist hierarchy over their attitude towards Europe, Mélenchon quit the party in 2008 and formed the Left party before founding in 2016 La France Insoumise. He left last October to concentrate on his presidential campaign but it’s noticeable that his election pamphlets don’t mention the party; that may be because in the eyes of some more traditional and older left-wingers, FI is associated with the intolerance of identity politics. Mélenchon himself has come into conflict with this dogma. Two years ago, as the Black Lives Matter movement swept the West, Mélenchon rubbished the notion of ‘white privilege’.

Like Le Pen, Mélenchon is a voice for the disenchanted working-class and that explains why the pair are polling well. On the two-sided pamphlet I was handed this week Mélenchon’s manifesto was condensed into six bullet points, among which were a) increasing the minimum wage, b) lowering the cost of petrol and food and c) re-establishing the age of retirement at 60 from its current 62. Macron intends to raise it to 65.

Easier said than done, but the presidential election is much less about the minutiae of policy (which is the focus of the parliamentary elections in June) and more about the personality of the person running to be president. Macron is good on detail but his character repels a great many people. Mélenchon, on the other hand, might be stuck in the 20th century economically but, like Pen, he appeals to provincial France, where deindustrialisation has hit hardest.

The 2022 election is a stark choice between two vastly contrasting visions of France: the progressive globalism of Macron and his ‘Anywheres’, against the protectionism of Le Pen and Mélenchon’s ‘Somewheres’.

Mélenchon, who used the recent revelations about the billions spent by Macron’s government on private consulting companies to rail against capitalist cronyism, is urging the left to unite. Don’t vote for Hidalgo, the Green’s Yannick Jadot or Fabien Roussel of the Communists because it will be wasted. Vote for me. It seems to working and on Friday Christiane Taubira, the Justice Minister in Hollande’s government, called on the left to support Mélenchon.

In 2017 Mélenchon earned the opprobrium of the political centre when he refused to endorse Macron in his second round duel with Le Pen. He was asked in a radio interview this week if would remain neutral in a repeat of the clash. Mélenchon scoffed and replied: ‘It’s not going to happen’. He is confident he’ll win through to the second round, and he also thinks he knows who he’ll be facing: Marine Le Pen

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