Is the left the real story in the French election?

In the lead-up to this weekend’s French presidential election, there’s been quite a bit of attention paid in the U.S. media (including some fine pieces on this site) to the impact of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on the race. While Le Pen has no chance of winning, and little chance of even making it ...

GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

In the lead-up to this weekend's French presidential election, there's been quite a bit of attention paid in the U.S. media (including some fine pieces on this site) to the impact of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on the race. While Le Pen has no chance of winning, and little chance of even making it to the second round, her substantial support has pushed Nicolas Sarkozy to the right on questions of immigration and Islam.

But I wonder if, when the dust settles, the real story of this election might be the resurgence of the French "left of the left," in the person Left Party candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The 60-year-old ex-Trotskyite who left the labor party in 2008 when he felt it had moved to far to the center, favors confiscating income above 360,000 euros per year and outlawing layoffs by profitable companies. His message seems to have struck a chord in post-crash France. He is currently polling at around 15 percent, putting him in competition with Le Pen for third place. His appeal seems to extend not just to communists -- still a considerable demographic in the French electorate -- but to disenfranchised Socialist voters as well.

Aside from ideology, Mélenchon's blunt style -- "dickhead" and "bird brain" are among the insults he's publicly hurled at journalists who've gotten on his bad side -- couldn't be more of a contrast with the milquetoast Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.  Not surprisingly, a plurality of voters -- 21 percent -- say the former student radical who grew up in Algeria is the "most rock'n'roll" candidate. Sarkozy got 5 percent and only 1 percent picked Hollande. (Efforts to make Hollande's image a little hipper have been painfully awkward.)

In the lead-up to this weekend’s French presidential election, there’s been quite a bit of attention paid in the U.S. media (including some fine pieces on this site) to the impact of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on the race. While Le Pen has no chance of winning, and little chance of even making it to the second round, her substantial support has pushed Nicolas Sarkozy to the right on questions of immigration and Islam.

But I wonder if, when the dust settles, the real story of this election might be the resurgence of the French "left of the left," in the person Left Party candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The 60-year-old ex-Trotskyite who left the labor party in 2008 when he felt it had moved to far to the center, favors confiscating income above 360,000 euros per year and outlawing layoffs by profitable companies. His message seems to have struck a chord in post-crash France. He is currently polling at around 15 percent, putting him in competition with Le Pen for third place. His appeal seems to extend not just to communists — still a considerable demographic in the French electorate — but to disenfranchised Socialist voters as well.

Aside from ideology, Mélenchon’s blunt style — "dickhead" and "bird brain" are among the insults he’s publicly hurled at journalists who’ve gotten on his bad side — couldn’t be more of a contrast with the milquetoast Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.  Not surprisingly, a plurality of voters — 21 percent — say the former student radical who grew up in Algeria is the "most rock’n’roll" candidate. Sarkozy got 5 percent and only 1 percent picked Hollande. (Efforts to make Hollande’s image a little hipper have been painfully awkward.)

A strong showing by Melenchon in the first round could push Hollande to continue his slow drift to the left, which has included a recent call for a tax rate of 75 percent for all income over 1 million euros. After two decades in which it seemed like a bit of a joke that center-left European parties were still calling themselves "socialists," the old-style left may be showing signs of life.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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