Mélenchon’s Rise

Samuel Earle

On 9 April, the left’s late-runner for the French presidency, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, held a rally in Marseille. He called for the formation of a Sixth Republic while his supporters – 70,000 of them, according to his campaign team – roared ‘Résistance! Résistance!’ Five years earlier, almost to the day, he stood in the same place, for the same purpose, sharing the same message at a very similar time: weeks before the first round of the presidential election, with his campaign enjoying a sudden late surge in support. Mélenchon hasn’t changed much since then, but the political atmosphere around him has transformed.

Following his recent rise in the polls – currently third, up from fifth a month ago – the top three candidates for the presidency now belong to neither of the two main parties, the Socialists and Les Républicains, which have alternated in power since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958 (though changing shape and, in the case of Les Républicains, name several times along the way).

Whatever the immediate reasons for this state of affairs – a centre-left that failed to live up to its election promise, a centre-right mired in scandal – the public is clearly fed up with ‘politics as usual’. All three of the leading candidates – Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Mélenchon – use the word ‘révolution’ in their campaigns. (Macron, ‘the Banker’, as Mélenchon likes to call him – he was a financial adviser at Rothschild – is the least convincing revolutionary.) All three have also distanced themselves from the traditional labels of left and right.

Mélenchon’s reluctance to represent ‘the left’ is the most remarkable. For decades, he has been a maverick of the French left-wing. When he quit the Socialist Party in 2008 after thirty years, it was, he said, to set up a ‘new party for the left’. Now Mélenchon and those around him almost refuse to use the word. ‘We do not appeal to the identitarian patriotism of those who think that we have to “save the Left” or “be left-wing”, a spokesperson for La France insoumise, the movement behind Mélenchon, explained. ‘It is far too minoritarian. We want to win.’

They’re coming close. The latest Ipsos poll has Mélenchon getting 20 per cent of the vote, only two points behind Le Pen and Macron, with about a third of voters still undecided. Last month, his personal approval rating was 22 per cent; now it is 68 per cent, the highest of any candidate, partly because of his strong performances in the televised debates.

His radical, fearless economic programme has resonated with the public – and left the markets in a panic. He has promised to tax incomes above €400,000 at 100 per cent, increase public spending by €250 billion a year, drop the retirement age, and cut the working week from 35 hours to 32 (Macron wants to increase it to 37). ‘The rich are living beyond our means,’ he says. If they want to leave, ‘let them.’

Investors have sold off French bonds and the euro has dropped against the dollar. The ‘nightmare scenario’ for the finance sector – a second round that sees Le Pen pitted against Mélenchon – is possible. Pierre Gattaz, the head of France’s biggest pro-business organisation (MEDEF), says it would be a ‘catastrophe’: a choice ‘between economic disaster and economic chaos’. The Economist called the choice ‘unpalatable’. Le Figaro compared Mélenchon to Chávez, Castro and Robespierre, ‘en passant par Lenin’. Slate recently released a ‘survival guide’ for Le Pen v. Mélenchon: leaving France is apparently the most ‘rational’ option.

Parts of the left are uneasy, too. It’s possible Mélenchon would take France out of the EU – or at least hold a referendum on the question – and he is committed to leaving Nato. His hostility towards supranational institutions has led to comparisons with Le Pen, but there is a complete absence of xenophobia in Mélenchon’s campaign, and he has refused to join in with her migrant-bashing. Towards the beginning of his rally in Marseille, he held a moment’s silence for all those who have died in the ‘mass grave’ behind him, the Mediterranean Sea.

His campaign strategy has been as radical as his policies. In February, he became the first French presidential candidate to make a speech by hologram, allowing him to address crowds in Lyon and Paris at the same time. He was also the first to have his own YouTube channel, which now has 260,000 subscribers, more than the other candidates’ combined.

His team has even launched an online computer game. It’s called Fiscal Kombat (inspired by the old arcade game Mortal Kombat). The player takes control of Mélenchon as he fights one politician or capitalist after another. You can take them by the collar and shake them until their money falls out their pockets; it’s then added to a public purse.

First up, you face Jérôme Kerviel (‘Jérôme L’Intouchable’), the former trader found guilty in one of France’s biggest trade fraud cases. ‘You have millions,’ Mélenchon shouts, ‘but we are millions!’ Next up is Christine Lagarde (‘Christine Pieds dans L’Tapie’), the IMF chief who was found guilty of negligence for approving a €400 million payment to Bernard Tapie, a French tycoon, from public funds. ‘Follow our recommendations,’ she tells the 8-bit Mélenchon, ‘your programme is impossible!’ I played the game several times and could never make it past her. Macron was waiting for me in the next round. Will Mélenchon have more success in the real world?


  • 19 April 2017 at 10:29am
    Laurence Dorman says:
    Very good, just a couple of errors that have slipped into coverage of Mélenchon and la France Insoumise; the increase in public spending is tabled at €173 billion (with a predicted expansion of state receipts to €192 billion), and the programme proposes to better enforce the 35-hour work week - largely avoided by many companies through legal finagling. No promise is made to bring in a 32 hour work week. Finally, the top tax rate is not just an arbitrary number - more accurately it's a maximum salary, set on a ratio of 20:1 against the median salary, so not fixed necessarily at €400 000.

    • 19 April 2017 at 11:27am
      Samuel Earle says: @ Laurence Dorman
      Thanks for the comment and corrections, Laurence. My figure for public spending was a reference to a Feb announcement, widely reported:
      With the working hours, you're right there is no promise, but his manifesto does say on page 57 that he'll encourage the passage to a 32 hour week: "favoriser le passage à la semaine de quatre jours pour aller vers les 32 heures".
      The 20:1 ratio is an important detail I should have included! Thanks again. S

  • 19 April 2017 at 11:15am
    Joshua K says:
    The persistence of somebody like Christine Lagarde as head of the IMF must be a big factor in growing French ambivalence about 'supranational institutions'.

  • 24 April 2017 at 1:20pm
    martyn94 says:
    I saw JLM on the results programme last night. His failure to concede was sulky and ill-judged (if he still has anything to exercise judgment about), but seeing the firebrand orator of a few days reduced to a sad (and evidently very tired) hack pol touched me despite myself. Enoch Powell's famous dictum about the end of political careers live on screen, in the flesh. He might have done his legacy some good if he'd sent the hologram.