- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
There are less than two weeks to go to the first round of the French presidential election and it’s been an exciting ride so far.
We’ve had a one-time favorite become embroiled in scandal (François Fillon), a new political star who is merging left and right and offering a France focused on Europe (Emmanuel Macron), and, just days ago, a leading candidate’s ahistorical insistence that the French state had nothing to do with the Holocaust (Marine Le Pen). Macron and Le Pen, according to most polls, but we now have a one-time straggler surging from behind: the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Mélenchon, age 65, is seen as a survivor of the “true spirit of socialism” by some and “the last Communist dinosaur of France” by others, Martin Michelot of the Prague-based EUROPEUM Institute, said.
He leads a far-left alliance and has captured the hearts of disgruntled, blue collar voters, who aren’t magnetized by the uncharismatic Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, and who, enraged though they are about the general state of things in France, do not want to vote for Le Pen. In fact, Michelot thinks that Mélenchon mania is sweeping France now in part because the charismatic speaker shined at the debates where he openly told Le Pen what many wanted to hear — “that she has no business being here, that’s she’s scaring people unnecessarily” and that “she’s a corrupt politician who’s part of the system.”
And Mélenchon hates the system. He rails against the media, preferring to speak to people through his own YouTube videos. His platform focuses on reforming French political institutions. Michelot noted he’s a longtime supporter of the Chavez regime and the Castro brothers and believes the European defense system exists to wage war with Russia, of which he his, broadly speaking, a fan. He’s a Euroskeptic and has markets worried about a “Frexit,” although, as Pierre Vimont of Carnegie Europe told Foreign Policy, he doesn’t want to leave the EU, but to reform it so as to explicitly benefit workers (which goes against the policies the German government is currently pushing and pursuing). He would have France leave NATO. Vimont noted that most of these are not, in fact, popular policies. “But people at the moment are applauding and supporting him because they enjoy his performance,” he said.
What does this mean for the first round of voting? Some polls now have him polling third, ahead of Fillon, who is under formal investigation for offering his wife and children roughly one million euros to “work” as parliamentary aides. If Mélenchon were to take voters, they would likely be Hamon’s. But he may win over some Macron voters too — at least in the first round, Michelot argued. Macron voters may be thinking, “give yourself a little bit of happiness in the first round; in the second round, vote with the brain,” he said.
Which means that what he says between the rounds — after April 23 and before May 7 — matters a great deal. Le Pen, Vimont said, will benefit from low voter turnout in the second round. Mélenchon, per Michelot, has “a loyal army of followers. People may follow his instructions quite closely.” Which means, if he doesn’t make it to the second round, he’s in a position to steer his supporters to vote for Macron, or just against Le Pen, or not at all.
Photo credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images