Into the three-ring circus of the French legislative election campaign has stepped Jeremy Corbyn. The papi magique arrived on the Eurostar last weekend to campaign for candidates of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose insurrectionary ultra-left campaign is threatening to deny the recently re-elected Emmanuel Macron a presidential majority in the parliament. First round voting is on Sunday. A runoff will be a week later.
Those tempted to overlook the continuing appeal of Mr Corbyn and dismiss him as a political has-been or even an unreconstructed Marxist clown, would perhaps have been startled to see him mobbed by adoring fans in Paris.
Corbyn was feted as a red prince from over the water. And of course he immediately provoked an anti-Semitism row in France. The denunciations of Corbyn’s problematic associations and statements soon flew in. Mélenchon’s candidates were attacked from left and right for having consorted with the problematic Mr Corbyn.
It’s peculiar that it took Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival on the French election scene to stir up allegations of anti-Semitism in France. Allegations of anti-Semitism are regularly levelled against Mélenchon himself and those close to him. These allegations are hotly disputed.
Corbyn, 73 and Mélenchon, 70, are semi-identical peas in a pod, baby boomers baptised in the new left politics of the 1960s, their political direction fixed for more than half a century.
Neither has a reputation as an agreeable companion. Both have short tempers. Corbyn is a slob, Mélenchon favours well-tailored Mao suits. Mélenchon is very sharp and cultivée, Corbyn an Arsenal fan, but they view the world through a similar Marxist prism and are firm allies.
Mélenchon in December 2019 said Corbyn was ‘no more anti-Semitic than I am’ — an ambiguous statement, at best. He went on to say that Corbyn had been ‘shot in the back’ by Blairite MPs, the chief rabbi of England and the Likud.
Both Corbyn and Mélenchon enjoy strong support amongst immigrants, the young, graduates, practicing Muslims and dogmatic leftist ideologues. If there’s a big difference between the two it’s that Mélenchon moment may be coming and Corbyn’s has pretty much gone. Humiliated by Boris, Jeremy is now reduced to the occasional cameo, showing up surrounded by Palestinian flags at the odd demo — or popping up randomly to lose some votes in Paris.
Mélenchon, however, might be on the verge of a gigantic political success. Defying all of us who had thought of him as kind of nuts, Mélenchon has seized control of France’s left, running an impressive campaign against re-elected president Emmanuel Macron.
Polls suggest Mélenchon could deprive Macron of a presidential majority and wreck his plans for a tame legislature allowing an all-powerful Elysée to do whatever it wants. His ‘Nupes’ (Nouvelle union populaire écologique et sociale) alliance comprises communists, ecologists and his own Insoumise movement.
Jeremy Corbyn will have done almost nothing to help. But his presence is at least entertaining, as Corbyn tries to reinvent himself as an icon of the international far left. It also perhaps reveals the passions that these aging leftists can still provoke.
Jeremy’s visit to Paris was revealed in a tweet: a photograph circulated of a scruffy Jeremy and numerous admirers flashing V for victory salutes. The author of said tweet was one Danielle Simonnet, the Mélenchonist candidate in the 17th constituency of Paris. Among many others in this picture is Danièle Obono, his candidate in the 15th. Ms Simonnet spoke of her emotion and pride to be in the presence of Corbyn and praised Ms Obono for having invited him, a ‘symbol of our common fight for social and ecological justice across borders.’ Both women are hard-core members of La France Insoumise.
Meanwhile, Macron seems to be running scared. His candidates are showing weakness against both Nupes and Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement National. The latest poll of polls shows Macron’s candidates on 28 per cent in the first round with Mélenchon’s list just 0.5 per cent behind on 27.5 per cent. Le Pen is on 20 per cent, the centre-right Les Répubicains on 11 per cent and Eric Zemmour’s Reconquête on 5.5 per cent.
Macron’s failure to obtain a majority of 289 deputies of the 577 to be elected would be unprecedented in the Fifth Republic. Polls estimate that Ensemble (the presidential coalition of Macron’s LREM, and its centrist partners MoDem, Horizons and Agir) might win only 275 seats. Nupes could win between 160 and 200. Not enough to impose a cohabitation (coalition) government but enough to cause plenty of trouble for Macron for the five years to come. The Républicains look like a diminished force with a sharp decline to perhaps 40 seats while Le Pen’s candidates could finish with a similar number. There could also be a dozen dissident socialists who have refused to ally with Nupes.
Macron is rattled. He had hoped the legislative elections would be a rubber stamp on his own re-election. But his uninspiring new government headed by the technocrat Elisabeth Borne has not landed well. His desire not to humiliate Putin by humiliating Ukraine instead has hardly been the stuff of principle. The incident at the Stade de France when the best-behaved Liverpool fans in living memory were first pillaged by the locals, only then to be gassed by the police, has produced rare expressions of public sympathy for the English. The blatantly wrong account of this incident from the interior minister, who was supported by Macron, has provoked a surprising amount of coverage.
More than anything else, the soaring cost of living is unsettling the electorate. The French do not trust or like this president, not even many who voted for him.
What does Macron do next? Plan B seems to be some ill-defined ‘people’s assembly’ to advise the president on the future of France and Europe. Cynics (like me) suspect such a curious unelected body would be intended to delegitimise a hostile assembly and could be readily manipulated into endorsing the president’s projects. Or ignored if it doesn’t.
Jeremy, meanwhile, must be back in London by now — pondering what could have been.