French Revolution Candidate Channeling Discontent Soars in Polls

Front de Gauche Candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon
Jean-Luc Melenchon, Front de Gauche Candidate. Photographer: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

The doubling of poll ratings for Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Communist Party-backed candidate in the French election campaign, is giving his end of the political spectrum its strongest voice in more than three decades.

Melenchon, a 60-year-old who quit the Socialist Party in 2008, is gaining support with calls for “Civic Revolution,” “Insurrection” and a “French Spring,” and an appeal to “Resist” and “Take Power.” Melenchon drew more than 100,000 people at a March 18 rally at Paris’s Bastille square, where the uprising that brought down the monarchy began in 1789.

“Melenchon appeals to the ‘anti-system’ feelings that French people from the hard left to social democrats stay away from,” said Gael Sliman, head of pollster BVA, said in an interview. “He’s calling for a revolution at the ballot box.”

While the former minister is unlikely to advance past the first round in 18 days into the May 6 runoff, his surge risks pushing Socialist Francois Hollande further from the center, giving President Nicolas Sarkozy an opportunity to paint his main challenger as an extremist, Sliman said. Melenchon has fashioned himself as the champion of French people discontented and frustrated by the highest jobless rate in 12 years.

“Hollande will have to shift to a higher gear, pledge more on the economy, on social welfare to win over the left of the left, as we call it in France,” said Jean Chiche, a senior researcher at Paris’s Political Sciences Institute.

Che Guevara

With fiery speeches laced with the language of revolution, Melenchon draws crowds that wave red flags, chant praise of Che Guevara and punch the air with fists while singing the Socialist anthem, “The Internationale.”

He has been the biggest gainer in the polls in recent weeks, with as much as 15 percent in the 10-candidate first round, the most for a Communist Party-backed candidate in 31 years. Melenchon would get 14 percent in the first round, just behind Sarkozy and Hollande, a survey by Paris-based BVA showed.

His support matches that of Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, and is ahead of self-styled centrist Francois Bayrou.

Sarkozy and Hollande are neck-and-neck in most recent polls for the first round. Hollande leads in the second round.

The candidates promise to boost taxes on the rich and on big companies and have pledged limits on Europe’s “laissez-faire” attitude.

“For those who think the Socialist candidate is not left-wing enough, Melenchon is the solution,” Sliman said. “For those who want a clear political break, he is the man.”

Melenchon’s Proposals

A European parliamentarian, Melenchon proposes eliminating value-added tax on books, barring doctors from charging more than the state-fixed rate, a new constitution to found the Sixth Republic with more parliamentary powers, a 100 percent tax on income above 360,000 euros ($481,000), the retirement age pulled back to 60 from 62, a 22 percent increase in the minimum wage and the creation of 850,000 government jobs.

While his proposals have little traction, his personality has been his draw. He called his party the Left Front to thumb his nose at the National Front and win over some of the far-right party’s working-class supporters, BVA’s Sliman said.

Mocking Hollande’s comment to London’s financial industry that “I am not dangerous,” Melenchon likes to say in radio interviews and in meetings in a wolfish, gruff tone: “We ARE dangerous.” At a March 27 meeting in the northern city of Lille, that comment won him the loudest applause from the more than 20,000 supporters present.

‘Disappointed’ Classes

“French people don’t support him just for his calls for revolution and his eloquent speeches,” said Chiche. “He talks to those disappointed by the mainstream parties’ response to the crisis, to the vast network of former Communists. His poll rating may win him huge influence in the Socialist Party for the June legislative elections.”

France picks lawmakers in a two-round vote on June 10 and 17 for the lower chamber of Parliament. The Socialist Party has a majority in the upper chamber, called the Senate.

Melenchon, who began as a Leon Trotsky supporter, started his career with the Socialist Party in the early 1970s competing with Hollande for the party’s leadership in 1997.

A Socialist minister for vocational education and a senator, Melenchon was a proponent of the “non” vote on the European Constitution in the 2005 referendum, breaking ranks with his party. In 2009, he created his own Left Party and soon pulled together the Communists and rejectionist groups for his presidential bid.

Common Platform

France’s far left usually makes as much as 13 percent of the votes in presidential elections, spread between half a dozen candidates. Melenchon’s Left Front has gathered much of these votes, leaving the New Anti-Capitalist Party and the Workers Struggle party with less than a one percent.

While Melenchon’s score in the April 22 may allow him to demand a greater presence at Parliament and in a possible Socialist government, his position is different from the last time a far-left group carried such weight.

The Communist Party had more than 15 percent of the vote in the first round of the 1981 election when Francois Mitterrand got 25.8 percent. After his victory, Mitterrand nationalized dozens of banks and companies, cut legal working hours and boosted social welfare spending. The program stemmed from a “Common Platform” he signed with the Communist Party in 1972.

Hollande, who hasn’t signed an accord with the Left Front, is still counting on Melenchon voters to help him win.

Mitterrand Heir

“Melenchon’s voters wouldn’t want the left to lose the elections,” Hollande said during a visit in the southern town of Montpellier March 29. “I know they want me to win, but I must still convince them to choose me from the start.”

The BVA survey showed that 82 percent of Melenchon supporters would vote for Hollande in the final round.

“Hollande is less eloquent, less assertive than Melenchon,” Chiche said.

At a speech in Tours, western France yesterday, Hollande said, “I am seriously left wing.” To reassure centrist voters, he quickly added, “But I’m from the serious left.”

A victory for Hollande would bring the presidency back to the Socialist Party for the first time since 1995. Mitterrand’s victories in 1981 and in 1988 had given the Socialist Party power back for the first time since 1958.

“For the past 30 years Hollande and Melenchon have fought to succeed Francois Mitterrand,” Liberation daily newspaper said in its March 29 edition. “They are at it again.”

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