That Strange French Election Also Features A Communist

Jun 2014
Cleveland, Ohio

LILLE, FRANCE — A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

In the latest plot twist in France’s highly contentious presidential election, Mélenchon — an outspoken 65-year-old leftist who often appears on the campaign trail via hologram and who has pitched his proposal to nationalize France’s biggest banks and renegotiate its relationship with the European Union via free Internet games and YouTube videos — is now soaring in the polls. With less than two weeks before the election, his meteoric and unexpected rise is already sending jitters through financial markets and shock waves through an increasingly anxious electorate.

For months, analysts have likened the upcoming French election to “Europe’s Stalingrad,” a crucial turning point that will determine the future of a country and a continent. But while commentators worldwide have focused on the steady rise of the far-right, fiercely anti-immigrant National Front of Marine Le Pen, few have paid any attention to the leftist fringe of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has vaulted into the picture in the past week and who shares with Le Pen the desire to drastically alter France’s relationship with the E.U., the 28-state bloc it once designed.

Mélenchon is running as the candidate of the Unbowed France political movement, in an alliance with the French Communist Party. The latest polls show him narrowly trailing Emmanuel Macron, long seen as the favorite, and Le Pen, expected to qualify for the final round of the two-round vote but to lose to Macron in the end. In the final days of a truly unprecedented campaign, Mélenchon’s unexpected surge is a reminder that radical change is in the air and that its extremist apostles — on the right or the left — may soon hold power.

Some have reacted with panic: Investors have begun frantically selling off French bonds, while the head of France’s largest trade union has decried what he described as Mélenchon's “rather totalitarian vision.”

But thousands of others have responded with joy.

Nearly 25,000 people assembled in this predominantly middle-class northern French city Wednesday night to hear Mélenchon, dressed in his signature Mao jacket, take the stage. With his distinct wit, erudition and rhetorical flair, he charmed his crowd, packed inside and outside a local sports arena, waving communist banners, Palestinian flags and signs adorned with the Greek letter phi, the campaign’s official symbol.

“It’s the people who make history,” Mélenchon said, standing on a dais before thousands. “It’s you! So we have to do it. Let’s go, folks! Courage!”

Perhaps more than any of the other candidates, it is Mélenchon who best represents 2017’s potential rupture with history, or at least the status quo. Central to his platform is the promise to abolish France’s Fifth Republic, the system of government established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

What Mélenchon detests in this style of government is its monarchical presidency — designed for de Gaulle himself — which can dissolve parliament at will and is subject to few checks and balances. Mélenchon has pledged to found what he calls the “Sixth Republic,” a vision that would “take us out of this presidential regime, notably with proportionality in all elections.”

It is an idea that resonates widely — even among those who do not necessarily support Mélenchon’s other more radical proposals, including taking France out of NATO and imposing a 100 percent tax on all income earned over 400,000 euros ($425,000).

“He’s the only one who dares to say it, but there are so many others who agree with that,” said Jacques Bruley, 25, an engineer with Lille’s tram system. Bruley said that he was not a full Mélenchon supporter and had not yet decided whether he would vote for him but that this particular idea was an imperative.

“There’s one person who holds an unconscionable amount of power. It’s wild,” he said of the presidency. “And when you talk about ‘change,’ it’s Mélenchon who would really bring that kind of big change.”

The reality is that “big change” is likely to come with or without Mélenchon: For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, neither the Socialists nor the Republicans — the vaguely center-left and center-right parties, respectively, that have governed France since 1958 — are likely to triumph at the ballot box. The contest will probably be a face-off between political outsiders: the independent Macron, the far-right Le Pen and, possibly, the communist Mélenchon.

Despite their ideological opposition, there are certain similarities between the platforms of Le Pen and Mélenchon. Both favor versions of economic protectionism to bolster a strong French state, and both would ultimately like to see France exit the E.U. — albeit for different reasons. Le Pen sees Europe as a threat to France’s sovereignty and national identity; Mélenchon views Europe as an oppressive neoliberal regime that has forgotten the poorest members of society.

He proposes renegotiating France’s membership in the bloc, and if things don’t go his way, leaving altogether.

But many Mélenchon supporters do not recognize the similarity.

“I don’t like the comparison,” said Alexi Descamps, 25, an IT engineer in Lille. “[Le Pen] has a very aggressive politics on immigration, and he doesn’t. He’s extreme left, and that’s what we need — he’s the only one who proposes a departure from capitalism.”

In a shocking turn of events, Mélenchon is in third place — behind Macron and Le Pen but ahead of François Fillon, the centrist conservative whose campaign has suffered in the wake of a public spending scandal. If Mélenchon does not qualify for the second and final round, which polls still suggest he will not, his supporters say they are not sure whom they will support instead — or even whether they will vote.

“Of course I will vote for whomever is not the extreme right,” said Eva Alain, 20, an audiovisual student. “But if it’s Fillon, it’s impossible, and if it’s Macron, it’s difficult.”

In recent months, Mélenchon — once a distant afterthought in the constant election predictions — has presided over a digital campaign that has successfully appealed to a wider base of voters, especially among the young.

He has more YouTube followers than all of his principal opponents combined, and he released an online video game titled “Fiscal Kombat,” in which players attack bankers and, at a higher level, Christine Lagarde, the French director of the International Monetary Fund, in the name of redistributing wealth to the masses. The game is a remake of “Mortal Kombat,” a 1990s video game familiar to many of his supporters.

Even so, if young people in France affiliate with a party, it is generally the party of abstention. According to a recent poll from the Ifop agency, the intent to abstain has risen to 52 percent among voters ages 18 to 25.

In the campaign’s final days, the field is wide open.

What a world. 30 years after the US won the Cold War, its NATO allies are considering Communism for their own governments?

Something has obviously gone badly wrong in France, especially as its young people see things.

Your thoughts?
Jul 2007
France leaving NATO has happened once before. I think that during the 1950's Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the organisation. He was quickly ousted from power and France rejoined.

Melenchon doesn't say he wants to leave the EU outright. He wants to "renegotiate" the terms. Whatever that means. If the renegotiation fails then he wants a referendum to leave the EU. Given that he wants to curb the free movement of people and fragment the single market... it's easy to conclude that the renegotiation would be fruitless and Melenchon would be staging a referendum that might be the end of the EU and peace in Europe.

He has lots of good ideas (maybe wishes is the better word) but leaving NATO and the EU makes him unacceptable to everyone in Europe.

Edit: Communist parties used to be very strong in Europe, especially in France and Italy. They were kept out of power through the scheming of parties and politicians supported by the United States and wealthy people and organisations in France and Italy. This is nothing new.
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Former Staff
Jul 2007
So. Md.

What a world. 30 years after the US won the Cold War, its NATO allies are considering Communism for their own governments?

Something has obviously gone badly wrong in France, especially as its young people see things.

Your thoughts?
It's not just French young people. Young people in general don't have much faith in democracy.

Younger people are more open to the alternatives to democracy, such as military rule.

Overall, more people thought democracy was a bad way to run a country in 2011 than in 1995. In 1995, only 16% of Americans born in the 1970s believed that democracy was a “bad” political system for their country.

In 2011 that figure went up to 20% – or one fifth.

Those born in the 1980s were even less enamoured with democracy – 24% of U.S. millennials considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country in 2011.

Europe showed a similar trend. In 2011, 13% of European youth aged 16 to 24 expressed such a view, up from 8% among the same age group in the mid-1990s.
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Apr 2017
Mélenchon could not achieve second place in the presidential election, but it is likely, either way, that the Front de Gauche will gain seats in the National Assembly, probably at the expense of the Parti Socialiste. In fact, PS will probably lose quite a large number of seats to both the FG, and En Marche!, the new centrist, social liberal party of Emmanuel Macron.
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