There are seven of them: six men and one woman will face each other tonight in the last of three debates leading to the first round of the French left’s primary on Sunday. Seven, a holy number: how could it possibly go wrong?
With the notable exception of 2002 – which saw Jacques Chirac face far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen – a socialist candidate has been in the second round of every presidential election since 1974. But given Marine Le Pen’s steady and comfortable advance in the polls, France will probably see one of its two main parties, the conservative Republicans or the Socialist party, excluded from the second round. But what if both of them were?
Two serious contenders are gaining momentum. One of them is Emmanuel Macron, François Hollande’s former economy minister currently third in the polls, and the other is Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Mélenchon is 65. He is no newbie in French politics. He joined the Socialist party in the 1970s, was a senator for years and served as a junior minister from 2000 to 2002. He has always been an outspoken character and has certainly always been heavily to the left of the socialist party. It was no surprise to see him quit the party when it fell into disarray in 2008.
He launched the boldly named “Left Party” and stood for the 2012 presidential election, finishing in a respectable fourth place behind Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Le Pen with 11.1 per cent of the votes. During the presidential campaign, he attracted media attention with his fiery speeches, brash style and, ironically, distinct hate of…the media.
Mélenchon has over the years very cleverly positioned himself as the people’s candidate. He has unfairly been referred to as a populist by his detractors. Anyone who has spent a little bit of time one-on-one with him will tell you that he has strong beliefs and is driven by more than just personal ambition.
Mélenchon passionately defends the idea of a new Republic that gives power back to the people and abolishes the “presidential monarchy”, wants more fiscal justice, a review of the European treaties to put an end to “austerity policies”, and a new ecological order which would see France drop nuclear power.
In more ways than one, his agenda is a traditional French hard-left platform, but the package is new. And therein lies his popularity.
Mélenchon is not just a man of strong beliefs, he is also an astute politician. At a time when many voters have become disillusioned with party politics, Mélenchon has freed himself of party bonds and is campaigning on a platform aiming to reach far beyond his traditional voters. He has branded his movement La France insoumise “Unsubmissive France” and uses similar rhetoric to citizen-based movements like Los Indignados in Spain.
To attract younger voters, Mélenchon successfully took to YouTube. He recently commented on having over 140,000 followers on the video-sharing website, which is more than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and boasted about reaching 10 million views. On 5 February, he will hold a campaign rally in Lyons and in Paris. He will be physically present in Lyons and his hologram will address the crowds in Paris.
Unlike Macron, he is proud of his left heritage and dreams of nothing less than seeing the Socialist candidate leave the race and support him as the candidate of a unified left. The polls are currently placing him ahead of whoever wins the left’s primary.
Mélenchon is successfully capitalising on left-wing voters’ disappointment in the Socialist party following Hollande’s presidency. He is holding a rally today in Florange, an industrial town that symbolises the French industrial crisis, as the state has tried and failed over the years to save its steelworks.
Most of the candidates in the left’s primary were government ministers during Hollande’s term. Some of them resigned, accusing the French President of not delivering what he was elected for, but none of them can, like Mélenchon, claim that they had no part in what is widely perceived as a failed presidency.
At this stage, it is difficult to see how Mélenchon could reach the second round of the presidential election, but the incredible dynamic of his campaign is redefining the French left. If on voting day he confirms his lead on the Socialist candidate, the Socialist party risks imploding. At tonight’s debate, Mélenchon will definitely be the elephant in the room.