Leftist candidate takes far-right fight to prime time

Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (right) has made attacking far-right leader Marine Le Pen a central part of his campaign, and the strategy could be paying off.


French television audiences were party to a strange spectacle on Thursday night, when the usually combative far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen refused to speak directly to her far-left rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon during a long and tense appearance on French public television.

Le Pen, who opinion polls predict will place third in France’s April 22 presidential ballot, said she would not debate with a “fake candidate” whose only strategy was to throw “violent insults” at her. Le Pen’s silence allowed Mélenchon to drill her on several issues, and to repeat running claims that she was scared of him.

It was the third televised encounter in the past year between the far-right and far-left French leaders – tête-à-têtes in which Le Pen has generally fared poorly. “Game, set, match?” Mélenchon, a presidential hopeful for the Left Front coalition, later bragged on Thursday night to followers on the micro-blogging website Twitter.

Mélenchon had good reasons to gloat. He has been steadily gaining ground in public opinion, rising from around 3.5% support in March 2011 to as much as 9% this month. His success could have a lot to with his decision to openly confront the far-right National Front party on the presidential campaign trail –a strategy dubbed the “Front vs. Front fight” by French commentators.

On Thursday night’s television showdown, Le Pen enumerated the insults Mélenchon has thrown her way, which included “fascist”, “a blind bat”, and “half-demented”. “That still leaves you one good half!” Mélenchon shot back, drawing laughter from audience members on the show’s soundstage.

“He is really at the forefront of the fight against Marine Le Pen,” explained Eric Bonnet, director of opinion studies at the French polling agency BVA. “Leftist voters appreciate his combative style and the fact he represents a clear break from business-as-usual.”

Bonnet added that while Mélenchon has known some progress in terms of voter intentions–around 4 percentage points in the past five months–his approval rating among leftists has literally exploded from 30 to 60% during the same period.

Forging the Left Front

Mélenchon has been in politics for four decades, but has never been more recognizable on the national stage as he is now.

A former junior minister for professional training and senator from the Essone region near Paris, Mélenchon currently holds a post as a European MP. He was a member of the main opposition Socialist Party, but broke ranks to create his own Left Party (PG) in 2008.

The Left Party has thus failed to attract significant numbers of members, but has known relative success by forging an alliance with France’s Communist Party (PCF). The affiliation has armed Mélenchon with an established political machine and the Communist party members necessary to wage a credible national campaign.

The Left Front has also been a profitable partnership for the PCF, a once powerful party that has been largely discredited for the past twenty years. In 2007 the Communist presidential candidate Marie-George Buffet collected a meager 1.34% of votes in the ballot's first round.

A thorn in Hollande's side?

According BVA’s Bonnet, a small rise in Mélenchon’s poll numbers can be attributed to doubts about Socialist candidate François Hollande. “Some leftist voters are expressing concern that Hollande is not solidly on the left ideologically,” Bonnet explained, but added that this trend was “still extremely weak”.

Mélenchon’s growing visibility on the campaign trail could become an obstacle for Hollande - who is still the election’s frontrunner, according to opinion polls. Last week, the far-left candidate ruffled Socialist feathers with a letter calling on Socialist MP’s to vote against the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) in parliament.

The Socialist Party is deeply divided over the ESM, a permanent rescue funding programme awaiting approval from the eurozone member states, and Hollande has avoided speaking about it. Mélenchon’s letter served to highlight those divisions and prove he was further left than Hollande.

However, Bonnet does not think that Mélenchon’s theatrics against Le Pen or his solid leftist position can destabilize Hollande. “So far the anti-Sarkozy sentiment that is pushing leftist voters to back Hollande is still much stronger than Mélenchon’s popularity,” Bonnet said.

Mélenchon has also publicly declared that he would endorse Hollande, if his Socialist rival were to advance to the second round.

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