Experts see Melenchon as the most powerful leftist with an outside chance of making it to the second round of voting — but only if the entire left joins him.
Jean-Luc Melenchon is the weakened and fragmented French left’s strongest candidate in the first round of the upcoming presidential polls on April 10, coming in third after President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, according to surveys.
While Melenchon is scoring at more than 16 percent support in the polls, other leftist competitors like the Socialist Party’s official candidate Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and Yannick Jadot, the candidate for the Greens, are scoring at less than five percent, different polls indicate.
“Right now, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the extreme left candidate, is the strongest leftist candidate in the presidential race,” says Francois Gemenne, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Liege in Belgium.
Melenchon, a former Socialist Party minister, who left France’s biggest leftist party in 2008, is a leftist firebrand with close links to the country’s communists. In 2016, he formed his "France Unbowed" party to create a leftist bloc, including communists.
As the election approaches, his appeal to the French left has increased significantly, and now the 70-year old politician hopes that with some luck, he can end up being one of the top two candidates, who will face off in the second round on April 24 to finalise the results.
Gemenne thinks it’s unlikely that Melenchon will make it to the second round. “But it’s still a possibility,” because all leftist votes could go to Melenchon, he tells TRT World.
Murat Yigit, an academic at the Istanbul Commerce University who was educated in France, also thinks Melenchon has a chance. But the Communist Party of France has its own candidate in the upcoming election, which might damage Melenchon’s prospects of making it to the second round, Yigit tells TRT World.
“We have a few days, and we can feel our destiny at our fingertips. We know we can push for the most incredible political change of direction imaginable,” Melenchon said, during a speech on April 5. He likened himself to a turtle, who can beat the hares to the finish line.
The radical leftist candidate has increasingly looked like an anti-globalist and a champion of the French poor. “Don’t tell me we cannot make shoes or hats or jeans here that haven’t travelled halfway around the world. We can,” he said, blaming the country’s elites and globalists for unemployment, health crisis and poverty.
“His chances depend on the rate of abstention. Macron succeeded in constituting a bourgeois bloc composed of conservatives pleased by reactionary politics and liberals pleased by the ‘startup nation’ ideal,” says Yasser Louati, a French political analyst and the head of the Committee for Justice & Liberties (CJL).
“Melenchon faces the challenge of the working class, the Banlieues (suburbs) and minorities that abstain from voting because no party truly represents them,” Louati tells TRT World.
“Melenchon wants their vote and offers a programme to address their concerns, but his own party is composed of the highly educated and people who don’t live with the working class, his core target,” he adds.
Gemenne believes that even if Melenchon made it to the second round, he would not stand a chance against Macron.
What’s his background?
Melenchon was born in Morocco, a Muslim majority country and former French colony. His father was of Spanish descent, and his mother came from a mixed ancestry of Spanish and Italian.
When he was 10, he moved to France and went on to obtain a degree in philosophy from the University of Franche-Comte. In 1976, he joined former French President Francois Mitterand’s Socialist Party and since then, he has been deeply connected with the country’s left.
He became a minister in the early 2000s with the Socialist Party, but like many other radical leftists, he felt increasingly alienated from a party that was adopting right-wing policies in line with pro-globalist trends, despite pre-election pledges.
After leaving the party in the late 2000s with like-minded leftists, he established the Left Party, which formed political alliances with the Communist Party of France, maintaining a parliamentary seat since 2017. He was a presidential candidate in both the 2012 and 2017 elections, receiving substantial support and taking fourth place.
While he presents himself and his party as the defender of equality and liberty for all, Louati finds his candidacy “quite problematic” due to his persona and political past. Louati says this past presents “a major challenge for him to gain more votes,” especially from those within the Muslim community.
“He has been perceived as polarising, authoritarian and even an Islamophobe at times. He voted for all the anti-Muslim laws and has actively contributed to fuelling anti-Muslim controversies around the headscarf,” he says.
Louati also finds his party’s management style undemocratic and “less transparent” than other parties, which generates doubts about his leadership style were he to become president.
Has he really changed?
Despite the charges of anti-Muslim sentiment, he has recently appeared to be more friendly towards Muslims than his right-wing competitors - but that doesn’t say much. He was the strongest opponent of France’s controversial anti-separatism bill last year due to its “anti-republican" and “anti-Muslim" character.
He denounced the bill arguing that separatism was “a hollow and hazy concept.” He also found it shameful that the French parliament spent so much time discussing matters like “the veil, the burkini, foreign flags at weddings and even ululations.”
But Louati has difficulty believing he has changed. “He has now changed his rhetoric to appeal to Muslim voters that have found no support from other candidates. But is Melenchon to be judged based on his 30-year track record or his discourse two years before the elections?”
Louati’s doubts take root in French democracy’s deficiencies and practical realities. Many people voted for conservative Jacques Chirac in 2002 to stop the far-right. Still, he also ended up adopting part of the far-right anti-Muslim political agenda and embracing neoliberal reforms, according to Louati.
In 2017, a similar scenario brought Macron to power against the rising far-right. But the centrist Macron has also been appeasing the far-right to remain electable during his tenure. Sometimes, his aides have sounded even more radical than the traditional far-right.
Due to the French left’s weak political base, even leftist parties adopt right-wing policies out of fear of losing power, according to Gemenne.
In the last two decades, as the far-right strengthens, conservative and even leftist parties have also moved to the right rather than developing a genuine political agenda to promote diversity, inclusiveness and democratic rights for minorities.
On paper, Melenchon is “certainly the lesser evil,” says Louati, but his controversial background raises fundamental questions about not only his platform but also the health of French democracy, he adds.
“Is it only about voting for the lesser evil or to vote out of belief in a programme?”