Shortly before the first round of the French presidential election I was handed a campaign flyer by one of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s activists. On one side was his photo and on the reverse the headline: ‘With Jean-Luc Mélenchon another world is possible.’ What sort of world? A leftist utopia in which the minimum wage would be raised from its current €1,302 to €1,400 net per month, new hospitals would be built, the retirement age would be lowered to 60, and there would be a fixed price for petrol, food and energy prices. Oh, and there would also be a Sixth Republic.
Quite how Mélenchon would pay for all this, given the state of the country’s finances (France’s national debt is 112 per cent of its GDP), wasn’t explained. But it didn’t need to be. Mélenchon is as good a salesman as he is a politician, and in that regard, he is the polar opposite of Marine Le Pen, who never looks entirely convinced that she knows what she is talking about.
If Mélenchon says another world is possible, then it is – and millions of Frenchmen and women believe him. In the first round of the presidential election this month he finished third, with 22 per cent of the vote, only a few hundred thousand votes behind Le Pen.
Mélenchon, 70, had previously said this year’s presidential race was his last hurrah. But that was before the results came in and he understood how powerful he had become in French politics. Just as he relished playing the kingmaker between rounds, bellowing that none of his voters should cast a ballot for Le Pen, he is now intoxicated with the thought of winning enough seats in the National Assembly to become France’s prime minister.
In the days leading up to the second presidential vote, Mélenchon announced that a coalition of the left, the Popular Union, will contest the parliamentary elections on 12 June. He declared that the parliamentary vote is the ‘last stop before the desert’ – by which he means that the next election of any kind will be the European in 2024, and if the left fails to win any meaningful power in June then their voice will be silent for at least two more years. ‘I call on all those who want to join the Popular Union to join us in this beautiful combat,’ he said.
Historically, France’s left-wing parties have been unable to unite into a coalition. Yet discussions are progressing well between Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, and the Greens, the Communists and the New Anticapitalist party. This week Mélenchon even held his first meeting with the centre-left Socialists. Two grandees of the party, Ségolène Royal and the former prime minister Lionel Jospin, have said this week that a union makes sense.
What other choice do they have? Mélenchon’s rise has eclipsed the Socialists and the party is becoming desperate. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist presidential candidate in 2017, took just 6.3 per cent of the vote and this year it was the turn of Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, to be humiliated with 1.75 per cent. It’s hard to believe that this party was in power between 2012 and 2017 under François Hollande.
The former president must bear most of the blame for the collapse of France’s traditional centre left, along with his inner circle, which included his former partner, Ségolène Royal – with whom he has four children – and Martine Aubry, the party secretary between 2008 and 2012.
They had also believed another world was possible, one in which their party didn’t require the support of the white working class. Acting on the advice of a 2011 report published by an influential left-wing think-tank, Terra Nova, they consciously moved away from their traditional base towards an electorate that was more ‘tolerant, open, optimistic and inclusive… [as] opposed to an electorate that defends the present and the past against change’.
It was a costly error of judgment. So was Hollande’s nickname for the impoverished working class, ‘sans dents’ (without teeth), revealed to the public by his former lover Valérie Trierweiler. ‘He presents himself as a man who doesn’t like the rich,’ she said in 2014. ‘In reality, the president doesn’t ike the poor.’
Hollande didn’t even bother to stand for re-election in 2017 because he knew his political career was finished. To replace him the Socialists picked as their presidential candidate Hamon, an achingly right-on progressive who also struggled to conceal his impatience with the customs of the white working class.
Mélenchon, who was part of the Socialists’ radical wing until 2008 when he quit the party, has never had that problem. On the contrary, he has been a lone voice among senior figures on the French left in pushing back against some of the progressive dogma that has spread to the Republic from the United States. He never jumped on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon in the summer of 2020, dismissing the notion of ‘white privilege’, saying that people who spout such platitudes ‘have never seen a poor white person’ and the only separatism in France ‘is that of the rich who live among themselves in their ghettos’.
On immigration, however, Mélenchon does hold views that chime with progressive opinion. Born in Morocco in 1951, he grew up in a multicultural environment which he described as a ‘vaccination against intolerance’. He clashed with Éric Zemmour when the pair met in a televised debate in September. ‘We are the country that openly practices a form of créolisation,’ said Mélenchon. ‘It is nothing other than the creation of a common culture of people who live together. Different cultures arrive and form a common culture.’
Zemmour and others on the right accuse Mélenchon of gross naivety in believing France can keep accepting thousands of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East without endangering social cohesion. Mélenchon fell out with Charlie Hebdo in 2020 when the satirical magazine called him an Islamist apologist, and in 2018 was turned away from a rally organised by Jewish groups because organisers accused his party of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.
The French call such political accommodation ‘clientélisme’, but it is working for Mélenchon. In the first round of this year’s presidential election 69 per cent of Muslims gave him their vote. The other demographic that plumped for Mélenchon was the urban working class, particularly the under-forties, who are disenchanted with the ruling elite. On the Saturday between the first and the second rounds I attended several demonstrations in Paris, including two Yellow Vest protests. All the people I spoke to who described themselves as working class had voted for Mélenchon in the first round and would abstain in the second. ‘Ni Macron, Ni Le Pen’, as they had scrawled on their vests.
The other common slogan was ‘Frexit’, and here is another reason for Mélenchon’s rise. He was prominent in the No campaign when France held a referendum on the European Constitution in 2005. His side won but three years later the political class – including Hollande and Royal – connived to ratify the Constitution as the Lisbon Treaty. Millions on the left have never forgiven this betrayal, nor forgotten that Mélenchon was one of the few to rail against the skulduggery. He has also spoken favourably about Brexit, which earned him the scorn of Socialist MP Sylvie Guillaume, who called him ‘grotesque’.
What Guillaume and most of her party didn’t grasp at the time was how out of touch the Socialist party had become with their electorate. Earlier this month Hollande, Aubry, Patrick Kanner, the president of the Socialist group in the Senate, and Hidalgo met to discuss the next leader of the party. The name agreed upon was Carole Delga, just another dull party member who has worked her way up the ranks and offers no new or invigorating vision. But the Socialists have been overtaken by events. Their next leader could in fact be Mélenchon.