Jean Luc Mélenchon , the 65-year-old former Trotskyst and Socialist Senator who is now backed by the Communist Party, saw his support surge in the French presidential race after he performed well in two televised debates and is now in third place.
Until now, the French presidential election was dominated by the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen, followed by the mainstream conservative candidate Francois Fillon.
But Mélenchon, with his electoral coalition called “the Unsubmissive France”, is shaking up France’s Presidential election.
Polls show him closing in on the frontrunners, Macron and Le Pen, ahead of the April 23 first round of voting, adding new drama to the campaign.
Mélenchon, with his unique personality, drew tens thousands of people in open-air rallies, like in Marseilles on Sunday 9 April where he talked in front of 70,000 supporters.
In an election where around 35% of French voters still don’t know who to vote for, it is evident that Mélenchon is becoming a new hero, a man that offers a choice other than the duel between Le Pen and Macron that many French people don’t want.
Speaking in Marseille, he said voters had a choice other than the extreme-right “condemning our great multi-coloured people to hate itself”, and fans of the free-market that “transforms suffering, misery and abandonment into gold and money”.
Before adding: “We can hear it. We can feel it. Victory is within our reach”.
Who is this left-wing French maverick?
Mélenchon has no real comparison with any of our classic, populist left-wing leaders.
He started his political career as a member of small Trotskyist group before joining the Parti Socialiste. 30 years later, the politician quit the Socialists in 2008 and went on to set up the France Unbowed party, while making a difficult alliance with the French Communist Party. Many of his ex-colleagues thought he had taken the wrong decision to leave the party, others laughed and then ignored him completely.
However, in 2012 his coalition won 11.1% of the share of votes and became instrumental in François Hollande’s victory.
Yet he refused to join the government, predicting that Hollande would soon become hugely unpopular. In other words, Mélenchon had understood before anyone else that the Parti Socialiste was dying.
But he isn’t unknown to the French. He is a senior politician who has been in government, and is well-known for his aggressive and acid-tongued rhetoric. But he is also a fantastic communicator and a talented politician able to explain in simple terms what he believes in and what he wants to achieve. And in a country where most people believe that all politicians are crooked, Mélenchon appears to be the only one left who can save France and its people from the disaster that a victory of Le Pen or Macron would mean.
But in his long march that should eventually lead him to become president, he had first to kill what was left of the Parti Socialiste.
Its candidate Benoit Hamon already represented a shift toward the left for the party. With his left-wing stance, Hamon defeated ex-prime minister Manuel Valls in a shock primaries victory. However, and despite a good start, Hamon has gradually lost support among voters to Mélenchon.
In all fairness with Hamon, winning this election as a candidate of the Parti Socialiste after five years of an unpopular socialist president was near impossible. Hamon didn’t stand a chance in front of the new hero of the French left.
Mélenchon is now seen as the only credible chance of having a left-wing candidate in the second round of this 2017 French presidential election.
He has already killed what was left of the Parti Socialiste, but what he offers could appeal far beyond the classic left-right political spectrum.
A new France?
Mélenchon’s manifesto was decided collectively and outside of the traditional mainstream political parties. In other words, his manifesto wasn’t written by specialists but by anyone who wanted to take part in his campaign. And if his manifesto is on the left, it also contains a conservative tone that could lead to a redefinition of what France is as a country.
He wants to reduce France’s working week from 35 to 32 hours and lower the retirement age back to 60.
He proposes an increase in the minimum wage and social security payments paid for in part by the rich being taxed more.
He wants to gradually scrap nuclear power, which produces around 75% of France’s electricity, and renationalise the partly-privatised national power group EDF.
But he is also appealing to the old Gaullist guard, while pleasing the Communists as he aims to take France out of NATO and to hold a referendum on EU membership if he can’t renegotiate the place of France within the EU.
Mélenchon, who has always been vocal against the European Union’s austerity, says he will push for a 100 billion Euro stimulus program and the renegotiation of European treaties to give France more economic control – with several conditions attached to staying in the euro.
He would make it harder for companies to fire people, limit executive pay and pull out of free-trade deals.
But Mélenchon is also calling for a new Republic, built via a new “French constituent national assembly” like during the French Revolution, to reshape the country.
He is calling for the rebirth of France, a new France which gives to his campaign a patriotic and conservative tone.
He wants to reshape the country, so France can reshape Europe around its values.
Mélenchon, like the General De Gaulle before him, sees himself as being the incarnation of France. Mélenchon isn’t just Mélenchon, he is France. And in a country that has been traumatised by waves of terrorist attacks, and where the far-right could swept into power, for many he becomes the best antidote against the far-right and the entire establishment that has created Le Pen.
In a country where millions of people are unemployed and where poverty is rising, Mélenchon appears to be the man who can rebuild the country. But by being above the mainstream party, he speaks to the nation, to the citizens directly and can convince people that he is the man for the job.
France is fed up with its establishment and many French people want something else. And for many, the answer isn’t another centrist candidate or the far-right. No, for them Mélenchon is the solution.