Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s French election defeat is starting to feel like a victory

Far-left party leader relishing the role of arbiter and kingmaker

When the results of the first round of the presidential election were announced on Sunday night, militants from Jean-Luc Mélenchon's far-left party, La France Insoumise (LFI or France Unbowed), shed tears.

If Fabien Roussel, the Communist, had heeded Mr Mélenchon's appeals to abandon his candidacy, Mr Roussel's 2.28 per cent would have gone to Mr Mélenchon and he – not extreme right-wing leader Marine Le Pen – would have faced President Emmanuel Macron in the April 24th run-off.

Mr Mélenchon had lost for the fourth time, by 421,420 votes. The left was yet again the victim of its own fragmentation. The 70-year-old had said he would not stand again. The dream was over.

But in the hours that followed, a different narrative took hold. Defeat started to look like a kind of victory. Mr Mélenchon had moved from fourth place in 2017 to third place. He had increased his vote by more than 2 per cent.

Now Mr Mélenchon, the third man, is relishing the role of arbiter and kingmaker. Neither Mr Macron nor Ms Le Pen can win without some of his 7.7 million votes.

Before the first round, historic figures including Ségolène Royal and Christiane Taubira endorsed Mr Mélenchon. He is de facto the new leader of the French left, having outdistanced the Greens, Communists, Socialists and Trotskyists who sought to bury him.

“Not one vote for Madame Le Pen!” Mr Mélenchon intoned four times in rapid succession on Sunday night. But he refuses to endorse Mr Macron. His staff stress that it is up to the president to make sufficient gestures.

On Monday, the two men exchanged text messages.

“I adopted a clear position against Le Pen,” Mélenchon texted, according to the Canard Enchaîné. “Now it’s up to you to give clear signals to our voters.”

That same evening, in the northern town of Carvin, Mr Macron began backsliding on one of his main campaign promises – perhaps one should say threat – to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. (Mr Mélenchon wants retirement at age 60).

He had “no dogma”, Mr Macron said, other than “not letting poverty take hold and not leaving our children to pay the cost of our cowardice”. He was prepared to re-examine the “rhythm” of pension reform and might submit it to a referendum or postpone it until 2030 “if we sense too much anxiety among people”.

He even (mis)quoted the great French Socialist, Jean Jaurès, saying: “We must start from reality to go towards the ideal.”

Making progress

That may not be enough to satisfy Mr Mélenchon's voters. Polls are inconclusive. An Ipsos survey says 34 per cent of LFI voters will choose Mr Macron in the run-off, 30 per cent will vote Le Pen and 36 per cent will abstain.

A poll by Opinion Way seems to show the president making progress, with 43 per cent of LFI voters saying they will cast a ballot for the incumbent, 28 per cent for Ms Le Pen and 29 per cent abstaining.

Mr Mélenchon is unlikely to tell supporters to vote for Mr Macron for a variety of reasons. The LFI mindset sees class prejudice, “ultra-liberalism” and identification with “capital” in Mr Macron. These are considered evils on a par with the racism and xenophobia of the far right.

“Too many presidents have been at the service of the rich and finance,” Mr Mélenchon wrote in his campaign tract. “Priority to the needs of the people!”

The far-left leader sees the president as a rival who siphoned off most of the Socialist Party's (PS) leaders – Christophe Castaner, Bernard Cazeneuve, Bertrand Delanoe and Jean-Yves Le Drian, to name but a few. If Mr Macron is re-elected, Mr Mélenchon may hope to lead opposition to him. He has probably underestimated the strength of the extreme right.

Reports of the death of the French left now appear to have been premature. LFI is well-placed to lead the left in legislative elections in June. If he returns to the National Assembly, Mr Mélenchon, a formidable orator, will harangue the government, whether it is Mr Macron's République en Marche or Ms Le Pen's Rassemblement National.

Despite Mr Mélenchon's promise not to stand for president a fifth time, his entourage have begun pointing out that US president Joe Biden is nine years older than the French leftist.

Mr Mélenchon likes being referred to as the French Bernie Sanders. Like the US senator, "Méluche" has won the loyalty of millions of poor, young and immigrant voters who regard him with cult-like adoration. He won 69 per cent of Muslim votes, and 56.2 per cent on the French island of Guadeloupe.

But he also has a paranoid, secretive and authoritarian streak which could be a character trait or the vestige of his youth in a semi-clandestine Trotskyist movement called the Organisation Communiste Internationale (OCI).

"We shared a sense of fraternity, of being misunderstood and at odds with other far-left organisations," says Benjamin Stora, a historian who knew Mr Mélenchon in the OCI in the 1970s. Mr Stora wrote a book entitled The October Generation about the experience.

Closest acolytes

“The organisation was very centralised. We used pseudonyms. Mélenchon’s was ‘Santerre’. Members spent all their time together, in a closed circuit.”

To this day, several of Mr Mélenchon’s closest acolytes are former OCI members. They sometimes meet in an apartment in the rue du Faubourg Saint Denis where the OCI held meetings.

Like several other OCI members, including former prime minister Lionel Jospin and former secretary-general of the PS Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, Mr Mélenchon made his subsequent career in the PS.

He broke with the party in 2008 to found the Parti de Gauche and later LFI, creating ties along the way with radical left Syriza in Greece and the populist leftists of Podemos in Spain.

Mr Stora disputes the classification of Mr Mélenchon as extreme left.

“François Mitterrand [president of France from 1981 until 1995] is his model,” the historian says. “He wants to build a big party on the wreckage, the way Mitterrand did in the 1970s, bringing dispersed factions together around his personage.”