The Upward Spiral of France's Far Left
Long a nation proud of its exceptionalism, France has of late had more than its fair share of exceptional political events. With mere days remaining before the first round of the presidential election, the four leading candidates all stand a solid chance to make the second-round run-off. This situation, French commentators remind us, is “inédit,” or unprecedented in the nearly 60-year history of the Fifth Republic. No less inédit is that three of the four candidates -- Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon -- do not represent the country’s traditional political parties. (As for the fourth, François Fillon, he represents a conservative party deeply splintered over their candidate’s apparent belief that parliamentary perks include enriching one’s family.)
Most inédit of all, however, is that neither Le Pen (the leader of the extreme right-wing Front National) nor the centrist candidate Macron (who has never before run for office and leads his own movement, En Marche!) are, well, not all that inédit. At least, that is, when compared to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France insoumise (Defiant France).
A tight political pocket
According to an Ipsos-Sofra poll taken on April 12-13, 20 percent of French voters now support Mélenchon. This not only leaves his Socialist competitor, Benoît Hamon, in the dust at 7.5 percent, but it also places him ahead of Fillon, who in the wake of what has been the Penelopegate scandal seems to have settled at 19 percent. As for Macron and Le Pen, they continue to battle for the lead, but the stamina for both candidates seems to be waning, though it remains to be seen how an apparent terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysees will affect the mood. From earlier claims of 24-25 percent of the electorate, they both have faltered for now, with each hovering at around 22 percent. The four candidates, Le Monde concludes, are bundled so tightly they could all fit in “the same pocket handkerchief.”
The right and center are understandably alarmed that, when the handkerchief is shaken this Sunday, Mélenchon might be one the last two to tumble out. Referring to his competitor’s Trotskyist background, Fillon mocked Mélenchon, who “takes himself for the captain of the Battleship Potemkin, but will end up with the scrap metal of the Titanic.” Macron, for his part, sees Mélenchon as the resurrection of the French Communist Party circa 1950. Referring to Mélenchon’s refusal in 2014 to condemn Russia’s activities in Ukraine or its intervention, more recently, on behalf of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, Macron declared that his opponent “promises peace, but it is peace dictated by Moscow.” Not surprisingly, Socialists have also trained their sights on Mélenchon. In a desperate attempt to stop the hemorrhaging of traditional Socialist voters toward Mélenchon, Hamon has lambasted the leader of La France insoumise for being less than defiant when it came to Vladimir Putin’s policies. When not describing Mélenchon as a “vassal” of Putin, Hamon condemns him for his “indulgence” toward Russia. Even President François Hollande has come to Hamon’s rescue in his recent criticism of Mélenchon. In an interview last Sunday, Hollande declared that Mélenchon “does not represent the left that I think is capable of governing, and his glibness sometimes slides into simplistic positions.” Of course, the irony that this criticism was expressed by a sitting president who, for five years, was the target of the very same barbs thrown by Hamon, was lost on no one -- except, perhaps, on Hollande himself.
Left is not right
It is a decidedly odd moment in French politics when national figures seem to view the candidacy of an extreme-left candidate as a greater threat to the republic than that of the extreme-right candidate. It grows even odder upon the realization that Le Pen has, by and large, spared Mélenchon the searing remarks she has aimed at the other candidates. While the explanation for this state of affairs seems straightforward -- Le Pen remains focused on those who seem to be her most likely opponent in the second round -- it nevertheless reinforces the claims made by a growing number of critics that, when it comes to Le Pen and Mélenchon, the extremes meet. According to the conservative magazine Le Point, Le Pen and Mélenchon are “the twins of retreat and ruin,” while in the business journal Les Echos, the respected philosopher Roger-Pol Droit observed that “when it comes to authoritarian impulses, Mélenchon has nothing to learn from Le Pen.”
Yet on numerous occasions Mélenchon has made clear his disgust with the behavior of Putin. At a mass rally in Le Havre on March 30, he bellowed: “I utterly reject Putin’s politics and, if I were Russian, I would not vote for his party, but instead for my comrade who leads the Russian Front de gauche and is now in prison.” At the same time, he continued, “the fact that I’ve nothing in common with Putin will not stop me from telling you that I do not agree with all of those who are seeking a showdown with Russia because their leader is an abomination.” In fact, in his insistence that France “does not have friends, we only have interests” and irritation at what he considers France’s “complete alignment of its foreign policy with the United States,” the radical leftwing tribune seems to be channeling the spirit of Charles de Gaulle. “We negotiate not with regimes, but with nations.”
Less Gaullien, of course, have been many of Mélenchon’s economic and social proposals, ranging from vows to reduce the work week to 32 hours and raise the tax rate to 90 percent on households earning annually more than 400,000 euros. These utopian -- or, depending on your point of view, dystopian -- proposals have obscured others that are textbook Keynesian. For example, Mélenchon argues that France’s sluggish economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment rate can be overcome by priming the pump. The pump, he believes, begins with consumer spending, and he promises to raise the salaire minimum de croissance, or minimum wage, by 16 percent -- a position supported by several progressive and respected economists such as Thomas Piketty. To encourage an economic revival, Mélenchon also holds that France must insist on a “refoundation” of Brussels’ monetary policies, warning that if this so-called “Plan A” fails, he will turn to “Plan B”: Renegotiate France’s membership in the European Union.
Needless to say, his economic “sovereignism” and adversarial attitude towards the European Union have appalled not just the French financial and industrial sectors, but also the traditional Socialists. They have also enabled those critics who insist that Le Pen and Mélenchon have more in common than either candidate is willing to admit. Over the last few days, Mélenchon has sought to clarify these positions, all the while insisting he is “not from the extreme left.” Perhaps for good reason, his foes and many former allies take issue with this claim.
But comparisons between Mélenchon and Le Pen are not only mistaken on crucial details -- such as their respective attitudes towards immigration or national preference -- but they also miss a broader and equally important point. Le Pen’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic policies -- earlier this week she called for a “moratorium on all legal immigration” into France -- are a world apart from Mélenchon’s insistence on France’s revolutionary and universal legacy. Whereas she has built her political career on dividing the French, Mélenchon continues to hammer at his desire to “unite (féderer) the people.” It is a message that has catapulted him to the dizzying position where he now finds himself; on Sunday night, we will know whether it will push him over the top.