France's left-wing Mélenchon admits defeat despite late surge

AFP archive | Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Far-left presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon garnered 19.6% of votes in the first round of French elections on Sunday, a breakthrough for the firebrand France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) candidate but not enough to carry him to the run-off.


Mélenchon’s candidacy saw a late surge in polling in the weeks ahead of the first round amid widespread disillusion with France’s mainstream parties. The ruling Socialist Party – for years riven by internal divisions under an unpopular President François Hollande – saw its candidate Benoît Hamon place a distant fifth with a meagre 6.3 percent of the vote.

But at Belushi's bar in central Paris, which served as Mélenchon’s de facto headquarters, his supporters were visibly distressed as the results rolled in late on Sunday. FRANCE 24’s Pauline Godard said many were teary-eyed, having believed to the bitter end that their candidate would make it to the second round on May 7.

Mélenchon gave a press conference around 10pm Paris time to acknowledge the disappointing outcome.

“The results announced this evening were not what we were hoping for," he told the reporters gathered at Belushi's. "But whatever they are, when the official results are known, we will respect them.”

"I cannot say or do more at this time," he added, notably declining to endorse a candidate in the second-round showdown between independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

His silence marked a departure from his vocal stance in 2002, when he urged his compatriots to turn out to vote for Jacques Chirac against National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen after the latter unexpectedly advanced to the second round, shocking France's political establishment to its core. 

Mélenchon supporters speak out

A populist for the left

Morocco-born Mélenchon studied philosophy and was a Trotskyist student activist before joining the Socialists at the age of 25. He became the youngest member of the Senate in 1986 and later served as vocational training minister under Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002. But he eventually had a falling out with then party leader François Hollande and in 2008 he abandoned the Socialists, saying that France “needs another voice on the left".

Mélenchon won 11 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 2012 for the Parti de Gauche (Leftist Party), capitalising on anti-austerity sentiment with his attacks on the wealthy and the ruling class.

This time around, he steadfastly refused calls for him to unite the left by forming an alliance with Socialist candidate Hamon.

While supporters see him as a defender of the people against wealthy interests, his detractors warn that Mélenchon is a dangerous populist. President François Hollande called him a "peril", while the right-leaning daily Le Figaro said he was like a "French Chavez".

Mélenchon is a leftist eurosceptic who has dismissed the EU as being "neo-liberal" and vowed to return "power to the people". He has advocated a non-alignment policy and even suggested withdrawing from NATO.

But while he shares Le Pen's dislike of the EU – ironically, both are current members of the European Parliament – Mélenchon is her polar opposite on race and immigration.

"I am delighted that France is a mix of races and all the children are our children," he has said.

In a move seemingly torn from the playbook of US President Donald Trump, Mélenchon took his populist message directly to his million-plus followers on Twitter and his own YouTube channel, saying he wanted to circumvent France’s “biased” mainstream media.

In another nod to modern technology, he simultaneously appeared at a campaign rally in Lyon and another outside Paris using a hologram of himself – a first for a French political campaign.

Mélenchon’s firebrand personality on the campaign trail was described as "political stand-up” by one former Socialist Party colleague, Julien Dray. “He's become a showman," Dray said.

But in recent weeks Mélenchon himself said that his style had softened after many long months of campaigning.

"I'm less of a hothead," he said in a recent interview with AFP. "I'm becoming a reassuring figure."

His performance in pre-election debates showed a more temperate Mélenchon, a shift that may have helped propel his last-minute rise in the polls.

Nevertheless, Mélenchon still says he wants to shake things up. He has vowed to reel in France’s "monarchical presidency" and give more power to parliament while rethinking the country’s international alliances.

"Sometimes there's no choice,” he said. “You have to kick the doors open."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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