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Kingmaker, queenmaker or court jester? Mum Mélenchon muddles French presidential race

Bertrand Guay, AFP | A supporter of French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon wearing a mask of his candidate after the first round of presidential elections on April 23 in Paris..
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
7 min

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon forfeited the opportunity to play kingmaker on Sunday night by declining to back centrist (and onetime banker) Emmanuel Macron over anti-immigration europhobe Marine Le Pen in the run-off on May 7.


Heady with the 7 million votes he scored in Sunday’s first round – or disappointed that he fell only 618,609 short of beating Le Pen to a spot in the presidential run-off – Mélenchon took no clear stand on election night, leaving his voters to hash out their choice for May 7 online. Third-place finisher François Fillon, of the conservative Les Républicains party, and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both used their concession speeches on Sunday to immediately back Macron for the presidency.

However, Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France (France insoumise) movement launched a voter “consultation” he promised on its website on Tuesday evening. It gives the 450,000 supporters who signed up on the platform before 10pm on April 23 – when Mélenchon gave his speech, and two hours after polls closed – a chance to express their choices among three options: voting a blank ballot, voting Macron or abstaining. Pointedly, voting Le Pen is not provided as an option “because it is clear to us that the National Front is a danger for the workforce”, Mélenchon spokesman Alexis Corbière explained on Wednesday.

The straw poll will continue until next Tuesday at noon, after which the results will be announced. But Unsubmissive France said on Wednesday that Mélenchon himself would not make public how he will vote personally, even after the results of the survey are released.

A sensation who rose like a shot in polls in the month before the first round, Mélenchon managed the feat of relegating the Socialist candidate to an also-ran. A former Socialist himself who cut ties with the party in 2008 to establish his own movement farther to the left, Mélenchon scored more than three times more votes than Hamon, largely on the back of two charismatic TV debate performances on March 20 and April 4. In those clashes, the 65-year-old political veteran came off as lively, confident, witty and frank. The contrast between his showman flourishes then and his post-election-night silence now is jarring.

Calls to abstain 

Mélenchon voters have taken to social media to air their misgivings about voting for Macron, a onetime banker and economy minister under Socialist President François Hollande who quit last year to mount his own independent presidential bid. Many, using the hashtag #sansmoile7mai (“May 7 without me”) have said they simply cannot vote for “le capitaliste” Macron, even against Le Pen; they would rather cast a blank ballot or abstain.

As some observers on the left have pointed out, Mélenchon’s apparently equivocal attitude in 2017 is in stark contrast to his stance the last time a National Front leader named Le Pen advanced to the final of a French presidential election at the expense of the left wing. In 2002, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, shocked the country by narrowly beating Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round, eliminating a sitting prime minister against all expectations. At the time, Mélenchon was still a prominent Socialist, a junior minister in Jospin’s government.

“[Mélenchon] really needs to get a hold of himself and call for supporters to vote against the far right,” Socialist cabinet minister Ségolène Royal said Wednesday on Europe 1 radio. “I call on him to retrieve the very effective tone he had in 2002, when he called for the far right score to be as low as possible,” said Royal, who was the Socialist Party candidate in 2007 when she lost to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

After the first round in 2002, Mélenchon was despondent; once a four-pack-a-day smoker, he quit, he told Le Parisien in 2012. He was so depressed that he couldn’t make his bed, he said on French television last year, adding that he listened to Carla Bruni’s “Quelqu’un m’a dit” ("Someone Told Me") because it was “a soft, tranquil song". (Six years later, Bruni would marry Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace.) "When you are depressed, you want someone to whisper in your ear, not for someone to scream at you,” Mélenchon said. 

Depressed or not, Mélenchon actively joined the “republican front”, calling on leftists to support the conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen. In an op-ed in Le Monde five days after the first-round vote, he wrote: “What left-wing conscience could accept counting on a neighbour to safeguard the essential because the effort seems unworthy of him? Not doing one’s republican duty due to the nausea ... is to take a collective risk that is outsized compared to the individual inconvenience."

“The more we reduce Le Pen’s score with the Chirac ballot, the stronger we will be afterward to rid the country of [Le Pen] during the legislative elections [a month later],” he continued.

But 2017 isn’t 2002. Expecting Mélenchon to man the barricades to block a Le Pen vote this time around neglects a key reason he manned them in 2002 in the first place: In his Le Monde op-ed, Mélenchon warned that Le Pen père was “economically right-wing, by his own admission” and the work force’s “most determined enemy”.

The trouble is, Marine Le Pen – while anti-immigration, anti-Europe and anti-elite, like her father – isn’t the same on economics. While Jean-Marie Le Pen looked fondly on the Reaganomics of the 1980s, his daughter later built her base in old Communist bastions in industrial northern France, stumping for a strong welfare state. As it happens, Macron’s most troublesome qualifier – “former investment banker” – is every bit as distasteful for Le Pen 2.0 voters as it was for Mélenchon’s. Indeed, an OpinionWay poll after Sunday’s first round showed that Le Pen handily won the working-class vote: Nearly 40 percent of labourers cast a Le Pen ballot to only 22.4 percent for Mélenchon.

'Submissive France'

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, is seeking to take advantage of Mélenchon’s silence to attract his supporters ahead of the run-off. Asked what she would like to tell far-left voters in a televised interview on Tuesday night, Le Pen said, “Mr. Macron’s programme is fratricidal in that it aims to pit communities against one another, to pit employees against one another, especially with the [European Union] directive on workers from one country being posted to jobs in another.”

Le Pen said Macron's ideas would lead to a “submissive France”, a play on the name of Mélenchon’s movement, and asked: “Do you seriously envisage voting for Mr. Macron, who has announced that he will wage a lightning war [on workers’ rights] by decree?”

That may be clever politics by Le Pen, but it also illustrates the trouble with Mélenchon’s approach: A blank ballot, a Macron vote or abstaining aren’t the only options his voters are considering. An Ifop poll released Tuesday shows that 19 percent of Mélenchon’s voters plan to vote for Le Pen (while 48 percent will vote for Macron).

Back in 2011, Marine Le Pen sued Mélenchon for calling her a “fascist” (and lost). This time, Mélenchon seems satisfied with sending his spokesman out to say as much in more careful language.

“You say that she is extending the hand [of friendship] to us. I say the [National Front’s] founders extended their arms … Marine Le Pen was the spokesperson and strategic director for Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was the principal transmitter of anti-Semitism in this country,” spokesman Corbière said on LCI television on Wednesday. Corbière also called the National Front a danger for the work force.

While Unsubmissive France voters dither, it might be useful for them to hear something similar from their erstwhile charismatic leader.

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