Europe

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the rabble-rouser leading the new French left

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MARSEILLE, France — Sitting in a café in Marseille, the firebrand leader of the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, grimaced over a glass of strawberry milk as his supporters cheered him as the potential next prime minister of France.

The avowed anti-capitalist tugged at his trademark raincoat and launched into a diatribe against profit-driven scientific research and a capitalism that breeds “chaos and greediness.”

Mélenchon was kicking off his party’s parliamentary campaign in the rugged Mediterranean city that is often seen as a symbol of the battle between the people and the Parisian elites.

Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon launches parliamentary campaign in Marseille | Clea Caulcutt for POLITICO

“People have understood here that to improve their lives, they need to change everything,” the leader of the France Unbowed party told a handful of supporters.

“They need to stop electing puppet lawmakers that put their hands up like pets every time the government asks them to make budget cuts,” he added.

A stalwart of the left and a battle-tested tactician, Mélenchon has pulled off the biggest political coup since the newcomer Emmanuel Macron snatched the French presidency five years ago.

Coming in a close third in April’s presidential election, Mélenchon bounced back with a bid to lead the left into the fray in June’s parliamentary election after he press-ganged other left-wing parties into joining forces behind him. In the process, they created a new alliance and agreed to a radical platform to “disobey” EU treaties, leave NATO and end nuclear power.

With his lightning-fast takeover of the left and promises to lead the charge against Macron, Mélenchon has burnished his reputation as a savvy strategist and eclipsed far-right leader Marine Le Pen despite her record result in the presidential election. In the runoff vote in April, Macron got 58 percent of the vote compared to 42 percent for Le Pen. 

On the heels of Mélenchon urging his followers to campaign for the “third round of the presidential election,” some early projections now suggest that his left-wing alliance could get the largest share of the vote in the first round of voting, ahead of both Macron’s coalition and the far right. However, it is unlikely that such a result would translate into a majority in parliament for the leftist alliance because the support for the far left is concentrated in some constituencies and Macron’s centrist coalition is expected to attract voters from the right and the far right in the second round of voting.  

Mélenchon has nevertheless pitched himself as the next prime minister of France if his party gets a majority — a highly unlikely scenario that would force Macron into a co-habitation government, where the president and prime minister are from different parties.

With his radical discourse on capitalism and his gruff demeanor, Mélenchon has also upstaged Le Pen, who has been keeping a low profile since her third failed bid for the presidency.

“I’m surprised at the importance that left-wing themes have taken in the public debate,” said Rémi Lefebvre, political scientist and expert on the French left.

“It’s clear that we are witnessing a duel between Mélenchon and Macron, though I doubt that it is going to last long. Mélenchon has very skillfully personalized the legislative election,” he said.

The question now is whether the far right is on the wane and if Macron’s next term will be marred by a full-frontal face-off between his mainstream pro-business party and a radical, populist left spearheaded by Mélenchon that will not shy away from whipping up street protests and finding ways to block his agenda.

Larger than life

Mélenchon is no stranger to controversy in France. An anti-U.S. anti-imperialist, the far-left leader is fascinated by Latin American strongmen such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Following a car trip taken with Chávez in 2012, Mélenchon wrote that “he had never seen such a political fervor … Halfway I realized that I was in tears.”

“He has a fascination for great characters, for history and for Latin America. He’s an intellectual and found inspiration there. He will glean elements to bring back,” said Lefevbre.

Mélenchon’s comments that Vladimir Putin “was going to sort out the problem” in Syria in 2016, have come back to haunt him. Until shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, Mélenchon defended Moscow’s position and said that Russia rightly felt threatened by NATO’s eastern expansion.

His temper tantrums have also raised questions about his aptitude for being in charge. In 2018, Mélenchon shocked even his supporters when he bellowed at a police officer during a search of his campaign headquarters over fake jobs allegations. In a widely circulated video, a crimson-faced Mélenchon is seen shouting “I am the Republic, I’m a lawmaker,” and “push out of the way.” A year later, a Paris court sentenced him to a three-month suspended jail sentence. 

Mélenchon was also filmed making fun of a journalist who spoke with a regional accent shortly after the aforementioned incident at his party headquarters. He is seen parroting the journalist’s accent and saying “So what does it mean?” before turning round to others and asking “does anybody have a question in French?”

Several party members confirmed that his entourage has developed strategies to contain his outbursts, but they have also used them in what Mélenchon himself has called the “sound and fury” strategy to attract attention. 

One former adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, says those close to him both admire and fear him.

“Ninety percent of the time Mélenchon is a brilliant orator and a brilliant strategist, but 10 percent of the time he is mad and paranoid,” he said.

“He is a scale model of a charismatic dictator,” he added.

The sealing of the left-wing deal between Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party, the Greens, the Socialists and the Communists sent the old guard of the once-powerful Socialist Party into an open rebellion. 

The former leader of the party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, said a France led by Mélenchon would look like “North Korea,” while former PM Bernard Cazeneuve accused his party of condoning “the hatred of the state” and of “tolerating authoritarian regimes” in striking a deal with him.

However, in an age of defiance against politics, Mélenchon’s off-the-cuff honesty and charisma jars with the slickness of mainstream career politicians, and has attracted many fans.

A formidable duelist on TV sets, Mélenchon breezes through speeches — while barely touching his notes. He is anything but boring. On stage, he offers the romanticism of 20th century ideological battles and the freshness of  21stcentury innovation. During the presidential campaign, the 70-year-old held immersive olfactory political rallies and used hologram technology to speak to several audiences at the same time.

It’s this savvy approach — as well as his conversion to radical environmentalism — that appeals to a younger generation, with over a third of the 18 to 24-year-olds voting for the far-left leader in the last election. At a gathering of France Unbowed in Marseille, many younger supporters say his speeches got them hooked on politics.

“I became political listening to Jean-Luc Mélenchon talking about redistribution and the need to boost low wages,” said student Guillaume Amodeo.

“He has a vision, can speak on so many topics and he really draws you in,” he added.

Opportunistic believer

Mélenchon was born in French-controlled Morocco in 1951. Suffering from undiagnosed hearing difficulties, he says he was “on another planet” as a young boy and developed an ability to “read people’s faces and even people’s minds.”

But it’s his experience moving to France in 1962 that shaped his political outlook, according to France Unbowed lawmaker Danièle Obono.

“He came from Northern Africa and there was mismatch between who he was and how he was perceived… as a tanned foreigner, even though he was brought up in a French environment,” she said.

“There was a cultural shock that forged his character and his sense of injustice,” he added.

A former Trotskyist, Mélenchon joined the Socialists in 1976 and was briefly a minister for vocational training in 2000. But he slammed the door on the party in 2008 over his disappointment that his radical leftist policies were ignored. Mélenchon quickly became the bête noire of the Socialist Party, a “dead star” he criticized at every turn.

In 2016, he founded the France Unbowed party. In a display of his canny political instinct, Mélenchon was able to benefit from the collapse of the Socialists after two historic defeats at presidential elections in 2017 and 2022.

After a brief flirtation with Euroskepticism and populism in the early days of France Unbowed, Mélenchon tacked to the far left, distancing himself from the political debacle in the Socialist Party, while softening his stance on the EU and immigration. 

“His convictions are not so stable,” said Georges Kuzmanovic, a former adviser who left France Unbowed.

“Like Marine Le Pen, he has a very changeable campaign platform. I don’t know if deep down he has changed, but at the very least there is an element of political opportunism,” he said.

But the move meant he was able to siphon off more moderate voters from rival left-wing parties who saw him as their only chance of disrupting the face-off between Macron and Le Pen in the last presidential election. 

With the far right embroiled in internal wars between Le Pen and the rival Reconquest party led by the former journalist Eric Zemmour, the united left has momentum behind it. Le Pen, following her third failed bid at the presidential election, has indicated she will not run again.

Even though Mélenchon’s ambitions to get a majority of seats in parliament appear far-fetched, his left-wing alliance could become the main opposition force in parliament, with 135 to 165 lawmakers, according to an OpinionWay poll.

As Macron and his newly appointed Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne push through their controversial reforms of the state pensions system and unemployment benefits, they will find Mélenchon lying in ambush at every turn.




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