Far-left candidate’s surge shakes up French presidential race

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s breakthrough in polls has prompted a whiff of cold war panic

The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is taking fire from every direction, since he became the “third man” of the French presidential election campaign.

Mélenchon, an MEP and former senator, overtook the conservative candidate François Fillon in polls on April 9th. Nineteen per cent of the electorate say they intend to vote for Mélenchon in the first round of the election on April 23rd, putting him within striking distance of the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who are at 23 and 24 per cent respectively.

At present, Mélenchon is the only candidate with momentum, which raises the possibility he could reach the second round on May 7th.

The “black scenario” of a runoff between extreme left and extreme right has made markets so nervous that the spread between German and French bonds reached a 10-year high on April 10th.


President François Hollande has broken his silence to warn of the danger posed by what he calls Mélenchon’s “orator’s show”.

Macron mocked Mélenchon, who at 65 is the oldest candidate, on Tuesday night, saying “We have the communist revolutionary . . . He was a socialist senator when I was still at school.”

Fillon also attacked Mélenchon, saying he "dreams of being the captain of the Battleship Potemkin but will haggle over the scrap metal of the Titanic".

The French Chavez

The conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro devoted three pages to the man described in a front-page headline as "the French Chavez", after the late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez.

When Chavez died, Mélenchon held a memorial at the equestrian statue of the South American liberator Simón Bolívar in Paris. He returned there last November 20th to celebrate the memory of Fidel Castro.

Le Figaro labels Mélenchon "the apostle of revolutionary South American dictators" and its editorial nicknamed him "Maximilien Ilitch Mélenchon", after the instigator of revolutionary terror, Robespierre, and the Soviet leader Lenin.

France’s sudden affection for “the old commie” Mélenchon shows the country is again behind or ahead of its time. His breakthrough in polls has prompted a whiff of Cold War panic.

France Inter radio played a tape of then prime minister Georges Pompidou warning in 1968 that if the French voted for the Communist Party, "the red flag would fly over the Élysée Palace, the prime minister's office and all the town halls of France".

Mushroom magic

The biting humour of “Méluche” has endeared him to many voters. He calls Macron’s meteoric rise “a hallucinogenic mushroom”.

There is something hallucinogenic about Mélenchon’s rise too. In his first publicity coup, Mélenchon upstaged Le Pen and Macron rallies when he launched his campaign in Lyon on February 5th while a hologram of him making his speech appeared at the same time at another rally in Paris.

He plans to repeat the magic trick on April 18th, when he will appear simultaneously at rallies in Dijon and six other cities.

Mélenchon has gained close to two million supporters since the first televised debate of the campaign on March 20th. He's the one who borrowed the term dégagisme ("get lost-ism") from Tunisia's jasmine revolution to describe the decapitation of France's political establishment. He made all France laugh when he chided moderators' reluctance to broach the financial scandals of Fillon and Le Pen as "shyness of gazelles".

Economic fright

The business management group Medef says Mélenchon's election would spell "absolute catastrophe". His plan to increase public spending by €270 billion "would be the fatal blow to the French economy", according to Le Figaro.

Mélenchon has promised to increase the minimum wage by 16 per cent, to strive for a 32-hour working week, reinstate retirement at age 60, make all medical care free, increase unemployment benefits, nationalise the arms industry and electricity companies and hire 60,000 teachers. Income tax for high earners would rise to 90 per cent, while all personal earnings over €400,000 per year would be confiscated.

Mélenchon’s attitude to the EU is summed up by his slogan “Change it or leave it”. He campaigns for a sixth republic and swears he will be “the last president of the Fifth Republic”.

To avoid scaring voters, Mélenchon no longer flies the red flag at his rallies; only the French tricolour. The word "party" has become a dirty word. Supporters of Mélenchon's "movement", La France Insoumise or "France Unbowed," sing the Marseillaise, not the Internationale. Mélenchon now praises Gen Charles de Gaulle rather than Latin American dictators.

Mélenchon’s invitation to north African immigrants at a 2012 election rally in Marseille, in which he said the French people “open their arms to you”, was thought to have reduced his share of the vote from up to 16 per cent in polls to only 11.1 per cent in the first round.

About 70,000 people turned out to see the candidate of France Unbowed in the Port of Marseille on April 9th. Mélenchon called for a minute’s silence in homage to migrants who have died at sea. Wearing an olive branch in his lapel, he called himself the candidate of peace.