A Mélenchon vs. Macron Runoff Would Be Good for France
The grizzled left-wing populist’s campaign focuses on economics and climate rather than immigration, injecting sorely needed proposals into the national debate.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a flawed candidate.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a flawed candidate.
At 70 years old, he’s running a third consecutive time for president. Over the last five years, the strategy of his left populist party, La France Insoumise, has veered wildly, alternating between ambitions of annihilating competition from other left-wing parties to forming electoral alliances with them, squandering the momentum and goodwill of his 2017 campaign in the process. His party suffers from a lack of internal democracy. His fiery personality still turns off many would-be voters.
Yet, as a masterful and seasoned campaigner defending a platform with popular ideas, the member of parliament from Marseille has been surging in the polls. What’s more, as the candidate predicted last fall, the division on the right has opened the door for what once seemed a highly improbable scenario: As the first round approaches on April 10, Mélenchon now appears to be the only candidate with a real shot of disrupting a second-round rematch between incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party. At around 16 percent in the polls, he trails Le Pen by roughly 6 percentage points.
The stakes are clear: If Mélenchon does manage to sneak into the runoff round, it would be a sorely needed shot-in-the-arm for the country’s weakened progressive forces and a refreshing development for the French political climate at large. The other left and center-left parties have been unwilling to throw their support behind him for a laundry list of reasons, but that doesn’t change the bigger picture: Even if a victory over Macron is highly unlikely, Mélenchon’s mere presence in the second round would bring benefits by refocusing the national debate on the climate crisis and bread-and-butter economic issues rather than immigration and identity.
A Mélenchon vs. Macron race would help shine the national spotlight on an admirable set of left-wing economic policy initiatives—a stark contrast from the mudslinging and scaremongering over immigration, crime, and national identity that would likely result from a rematch of the 2017 Macron versus Le Pen race.
Unlike Macron and Le Pen, Mélenchon supports a hike in the minimum wage—to €1400 (or $1,527) a month—and a return of the wealth tax the incumbent famously repealed in his very first year in office. He also wants to lower the retirement age from age 62 to age 60, a sensible proposal that acknowledges the value of leisure time and has the added benefit of fighting unemployment.
On climate policy, the left populist’s platform acknowledges the severity of the crisis: He has a massive €200 billion (or $218 billion) green investment plan underpinned by a constitutional amendment that commits governments to protecting biodiversity and combating climate change. Meanwhile, his proposal to form a constituent assembly tasked with forging a Sixth Republic is a similarly serious attempt to tackle the legitimacy crisis facing French democracy.
It would eliminate the ultrapowerful office of the French presidency and return the country to a parliamentary system elected by proportional representation. France’s political institutions are in need of renewal: If the polls are any indication, the vote on April 10 could feature one of the lowest turnout rates of any presidential election in the history of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958.
Mélenchon’s views on foreign policy—which can be summed up by the idea of nonalignment, a tradition that harkens back to former French President Charles de Gaulle—have come under fire, especially in recent weeks. It’s true that the candidate has previously downplayed the dangers of Russian military aggression (especially in Syria), and his opponents have understandably seized on that. But the notion that he is politically aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin is laughable: Mélenchon has firmly criticized the invasion of Ukraine from day one, and he dedicated a landmark campaign speech to the Ukrainian resistance.
His stance is leaps and bounds from Le Pen’s, whose party has taken out a €9 million (or $9.95 million) loan from a Russian bank and more recently instructed activists to toss out campaign literature that featured a photo of her shaking hands with the Russian dictator from 2017—printed just before the war to show off her foreign-policy bona fides.
A year after Le Pen was posing in the Kremlin, Mélenchon went to Moscow to visit Sergei Udaltsov, a Putin critic and leader of Russia’s Left Front movement who has since spent years in prison. Mélenchon does believe it’s smart to maintain dialogue with a major nuclear power at war, even if the invasion itself is an atrocity. But this is hardly different from Macron’s approach.
It’s far from the central focus of his campaign, but Mélenchon has also defended a tolerant and open-minded vision of French identity. Amid increasingly toxic debates over Islam and its compatibility with the country’s secular tradition—an era in which the “great replacement” conspiracy theory is referenced by even mainstream conservatives—he has called on the press and politicians alike to stop demonizing Muslims.
When discussing immigration, Mélenchon has borrowed from the Caribbean poet Édouard Glissant and his concept of “creolization,” embracing the fact that France is inhabited by people with origins from around the world. This is a simple way of acknowledging the fact that France today is a multiethnic democracy—a reality to be celebrated, not shunned.
In the same way that Le Pen’s runner-up finish in 2017 loomed large over Macron’s first term—driving mainstream media outlets and politicians to devote attention to her party’s core issues of immigration and national identity—the presence of Mélenchon in the runoff round could have lasting effects over the next several years, even if he doesn’t ultimately win the presidency.
Very concretely, it could help change the balance of forces in the French Parliament. Even if Macron wins the presidency, his agenda could potentially be hampered by cohabitation—a scenario where the president lacks a legislative majority and must share power with a prime minister from a different party. (This happened twice under President François Mitterrand and, most recently, under Jacques Chirac.)
If Mélenchon made the runoff, it would likely give a boost to La France Insoumise and other left-wing parties in June’s legislative elections. More representation in the National Assembly would translate into more leverage overall on the executive branch, weighing on the rhetoric and policies from the Élysée Palace over the next presidential term.
Of course, the ultimate goal would be the formation of a left-wing governing majority, forcing the president into cohabitation with a left-wing prime minister and a left-wing cabinet accountable to the National Assembly. This would be the supreme prize—still unlikely but just slightly more within the realm of possibility if the left makes it into the runoff round.
If Mélenchon beats out Le Pen, it would also send a much broader message to the political and media establishment: Despite the seemingly relentless rightward drift in discourse over the last few years, a large swath of the French population still believes in redistributive economics and progressive social policies.
On paper, these are compelling reasons for the other left-wing parties to back Mélenchon—and polls suggest just a bit more support from voters currently planning to vote for the Greens and French Communist candidates could help push him into round two. Yet, the chances of any formal endorsements at this stage are near zero. Each of the parties has its own motives: Although there are some limited but genuine ideological differences, internal factors and self-interest also factor heavily into the equation.
After backing Mélenchon twice—in 2012 and 2017—many French Communist Party (PCF) members feel like they’ve obtained little in return. In 2018, they elected Fabien Roussel as party chief with a mandate of making the PCF more visible on the national stage. In many respects, Roussel’s presidential campaign is a way of helping keep the party afloat—of reminding voters the French Communists still exist.
For their part, leaders of Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) have been encouraged by a string of strong results in the regional and local elections under Macron. They want their party to be the hegemonic force on the center left post-2022 and have decided environmentalist Yannick Jadot’s candidacy positions them to do just that. At the moment, he is outpolling his rivals from the French Communist and Socialist Parties.
Of the three main competitors to La France Insoumise, it’s the Socialist Party (PS) that has the most significant ideological differences with Mélenchon—notably on foreign policy and the role of the state in the economy. Still, the Socialist presidential strategy has been hard to follow. After flirting with the idea of a joint ticket with the Greens—then waffling on whether to back an open left-wing primary—the PS has ultimately decided to stick with a campaign of its own, with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on track to notch the worst-ever result in the party’s history. Polls have her at around 2 percent, well below Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon’s score of 6 percent in 2017, which was a new low.
Other key factors explain the reluctance to back Mélenchon. A strong score in the presidential elections can produce a strong hand in negotiations over the legislative elections—the messy process of picking which districts to run candidates in and where to challenge incumbents. Moreover, presidential tickets that receive at least 5 percent of the vote get a major chunk of their campaign spending reimbursed by the state, creating clear financial incentives to stay in the race until the bitter end. (The Greens seem to have 5 percent in the polls, but the Socialists and Communists are below the threshold.)
Finally—and perhaps most cynically—many insiders have been banking on the fact that the left will lose the race anyways. If that’s true, then why expend political capital on backing a candidate from a party that’s not necessarily committed to meaningful electoral alliances going forward?
The unwillingness to back Mélenchon has a certain logic to it. But party leaders on the left shouldn’t forget that this campaign also carries the promise of eliminating the far-right.
In 2002, left-wing division paved the way for far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen to qualify for the runoff round over Socialist Lionel Jospin, an episode that gave birth to a ghastly political tradition and still haunts the country’s debate and discourse today. Two decades later, there’s an opportunity to knock his daughter out of politics for good—but France’s left may be too divided to seize it.
Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Marseille who writes about labor and politics. He is currently writing a book on working-class Paris. Twitter: @colestangler
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