Mélenchon: Far-leftist surges in French polls, shocking the frontrunners

Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP | French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition La France insoumise Jean-Luc Melenchon smiles during a public meeting at the Old Port of Marseille, southern France, on April 9, 2017.

In a presidential campaign with more twists than a French braid, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s sudden play to become France’s third man -- or better -- is shaking up the race.


With ten days to go before April 23’s first round vote, the colourful, cultured and cantankerous far-leftist has the frontrunners on the defensive.

Suddenly, the grumpy far-leftist -- a showman in a Chairman Mao jacket who openly admired late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez -- holds the mantle of France’s most popular politician. In the course of a whirlwind month, the 65-year-old Mélenchon surged nine spots to number one in weekly glossy Paris Match’s opinion poll. A full 68 percent of those surveyed hold “favourable opinions” of the far-left candidate, the poll by the Ifop-Fiducial firm showed.

On some polls, Mélenchon has now bypassed embattled conservative François Fillon for third place in a presidential race that will see the top two advance to the May 7 run-off.

Campaign beat: Could Mélenchon be on his way to the Elysée?

An Ipsos poll on Tuesday put Mélenchon a half-point ahead of Fillon for third place in the race, behind National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. With 18.5 percent, the far-leftist has gleaned 4.5 percent in just two weeks, with Macron and Le Pen tied on 24 percent.

The financial daily Les Echos this week headlined, “Mélenchon: The new French ‘risk’”, while conservative newspaper Le Figaro put “Mélenchon: The French Chavez’s delirious platform” above the fold.

“Once again, they are announcing that my election win will set off a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and a landing of Venezuelans,” Mélenchon chided on his blog in response.

But the veteran leftist has seen this before. In 2012, Mélenchon, too, grabbed the third-man mantle, polling at 17 percent just two weeks before the election. In the end, his hopes of beating Le Pen to third place were dashed. He finished with 11.1 percent of the vote. This time, associates claim, he is better prepared to parlay his popularity into votes on election day.

Self-styled outsider

Mélenchon is the latest self-styled outsider to make a dent in the 2017 race in a nation that seems intent on relegating mainstream parties to also-rans and banishing "politics as usual".

But the anti-establishment tag is an exaggeration for Mélenchon -- just as it is, in fact, for the frontrunners Le Pen, daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Macron, a onetime Elysée Palace advisor and a former economy minister under outgoing Socialist President François Hollande.

Born in Tangiers, Morocco, in 1951 to Algerian-born pied-noir (a term referring to Christian and Jewish Europeans who migrated to French Algeria) parents with Spanish roots, Mélenchon’s family left North Africa in 1962 for Normandy and then eastern France. He studied philosophy, was active in student politics, initially as a Trotskyist, and then worked as a French teacher and as a journalist. He joined the Socialist Party in the late 1970s and became France’s youngest senator when he was elected as a 35-year-old in 1986.

Mélenchon would serve a total of 20 years as a senator -- from 1986 to 2000, when he was named as a junior minister in Lionel Jospin’s government, and then again from 2004 to 2010. He shirked the Socialist party line to campaign for the “No” side in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. Frustrated in part by the Socialists’ European Union stance, he finally quit the party in 2008 to start his own outfit further to the left, initially named The Left Party, which quickly allied with the French Communist Party. He has served as a member of the European Parliament since 2009. In 2012, in his first French presidential bid, Mélenchon finished fourth behind Hollande, the conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, and Le Pen.

The acid-tongued maverick has since had no mercy for his Socialist former colleagues. He belittled Hollande as a “pedal-boat captain” before the president’s election in 2012 and afterward ridiculed him as “worse than Sarkozy”.

No frills

A divorced father of one (a daughter, Maryline, born in 1974), the proudly no-frills Mélenchon lives in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, a gradually gentrifying district of the French capital where he says he plans to stay even if he wins the presidency. He owns a country-house in a town south of Paris where, he notes, Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping once worked at the Renault factory. Whenever he is asked to declare his assets, the articulate leftist boasts about his books, a 12,000-volume collection he started at 14. “On the whole, I am well enough off to reassure the petits bourgeois (a phrase ridiculing the middle class) and not enough to outrage my neighbours at the kebab place,” he wrote recently.

Now running under the mantle of La France insoumise, or Unsubmissive France, Mélenchon is pledging to slash the already controversial 35-hour workweek to 32 hours, drop the retirement age to 60, and enforce a maximum wage. Unlike fellow populist rival Le Pen, he is sympathetic to migrants and calls emigration “always a forced exile, a source of suffering.”

Mélenchon wants to quit NATO, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and block European trade treaties with the United States and Canada. He promises a French referendum on whether to stick with the reworked EU he is pledging to negotiate or leave the bloc altogether.

Critics have slammed Mélenchon as soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionism, tending as the Frenchman does to view Russia as a bulwark against US imperialism. “It’s the moment to negotiate borders,” Mélenchon said during one televised debate. “We must discuss all borders. For example, the border between Russia and Ukraine, is it at the extremity of Crimea or before?” he asked, raising the ire of an incredulous Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, in particular.

Perhaps more than his platform, though, Mélenchon’s newfound popularity seems tied to his swagger. He drew attention with confident quips during the first candidates’ TV debate, a five-way clash of the race’s top draws on March 20, blasting the moderators’ “modesty of a gazelle” when they avoided singling out some candidates, namely Fillon and Le Pen, over their respective scandals.

That strong performance saw Mélenchon leapfrog Hamon. Another, on April 4 in a TV debate with the full slate of 11 candidates, gave the far-leftist a new bounce. A party spokesman boasted that 380,000 people have “signed up for our campaign”, up from 250,000 on March 18.

For his part, Mélenchon has now set his sights on definitively passing Fillon before challenging Macron for votes, convinced the leftists considering voting strategically for a centrist in order to keep the hardline conservative Fillon from advancing to the final duel will be given pause with Mélenchon as the new third man.

On current polling, if Le Pen makes the run-off, her fellow finalist – whoever he is -- is likely to win; indeed, Mélenchon told a crowd recently that “a chair, table, a bench will get elected before she does in this country”. Deeming the centrist Macron’s hodgepodge of support from left to right “fragile”, Mélenchon says, “I will challenge him for the terrain when the moment comes.”

‘Genuine outrage’

Indeed, Mélenchon’s sudden surge is forcing rivals like Macron to take account of the scrappy underdog.

“The communist revolutionary was a Socialist senator when I was still in middle school! What would he have us believe?” Macron told a crowd of 2,000 supporters on Tuesday night in Besançon.

At the rally, Macron aimed to position himself as the candidate of “genuine outrage”, questioning Mélenchon’s credentials for same. The 39-year-old onetime investment banker cited the late French Resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, who as a nonagenarian wrote the 2010 best-seller “Time for Outrage!” and inspired anti-austerity protesters across Europe.

“Outrage is here, outrage is among those in this hall tonight, who didn’t want to accept the rules of political life,” Macron said. “Outrage is among those who want to fight for the middle classes, against social and territorial injustice,” the independent frontrunner said. He slammed “pulpit outrage, which consists of expressing condemnation and proposing nothing” and “easy outrage that proposes as a solution replicating yesterday’s recipes and spending money we don’t have”.

The young centrist this week also put Mélenchon in the same basket as Le Pen and Fillon, accusing all three of his closest election rivals of harbouring a fascination for Putin. “If the peace that Jean-Luc Mélenchon is defending is Putin’s peace, that’s not for me,” Macron said, caricaturing Mélenchon’s pacifist foreign policy. “If the peace that Mélenchon is proposing is to unilaterally disarm France before those who attack us and terrorist groups, that’s not for me.”

Mélenchon, meanwhile, seems unbowed. The left-wing iconoclast is focused on wrapping up his race in style. After an experiment with the gimmick in February, holograms are back. Mélenchon plans to hold a rally next Tuesday in Dijon that will see him beamed with a snap of his fingers to six satellite rallies in Nantes, Clermont-Ferrand, Montpellier, Grenoble, Nancy, and Le Port, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Réunion.

Five days later, he will be hoping, fingers crossed, that his newfound supporters won’t disappear into the ether the way they did in 2012.

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