Hollande Dithering Gives Communists’ Ally Run of French Left

Updated on
  • Polls show Melenchon would leave president trailing in fifth
  • President has refused to say whether he’ll seek second term

Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Photographer: Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty Images

As Francois Hollande dithers over his future, the Communist Party’s pick to replace him as French president is moving in fast to steal his base before next year’s elections.

With Thatcherite Francois Fillon installed as the candidate of the main opposition Republicans and Hollande’s approval rating approaching zero by some measures, a political vacuum has appeared in the space normally occupied by the governing Socialist Party.

One man who thinks he has an answer is Jean-Luc Melenchon, a 65-year-old who placed fourth in the 2012 election with 11 percent of the vote. Polls show he could take as much as 15 percent in the first round next year, far from qualifying for the runoff, but enough to humiliate Hollande’s party.

Having won the official backing of the Communist Party on Saturday, the candidate held a major rally in Bordeaux Tuesday and is now crisscrossing the country seeking support from disillusioned Socialists.

“The Socialists are in total meltdown,” said Dominique Reynie, a professor at the Sciences Po Institute in Paris. “Melenchon is now making inroads and the communist endorsement is significant. It provides funding and a party apparatus.”

Polling Woes

The spectacle of a crumbling Socialist Party hit the front pages this week with Prime Minister Manuel Valls openly criticizing Hollande and questioning the president’s chances of winning. The Republicans have chosen their candidate and the question is now “who is their strongest opponent?” Valls asked. “I am preparing. I am ready.”

Hollande would trail Melenchon in fifth place with 9 percent of the vote if an election were held now, according to a Harris Interactive poll carried out on Nov. 27. That compares with 26 percent for Fillon, 24 percent for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and 14 percent for the former Socialist economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who quit the government to rebrand himself as a centrist in August. Melenchon would get 13 percent, according to the survey of 6,093 people. No margin of error was given.

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An Ipsos poll published last month gave Hollande an approval rating of 4 percent, reflecting outrage at a tell-all book based on interviews with the president by two journalists. With the first round of the election less than five months away and the Socialist primaries coming up in January, Hollande has been prevaricating about whether to attempt a comeback and has promised to state his intentions by mid-December. Fillon, meanwhile, is already building on his primary victory and on Wednesday will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, in Paris.

“Francois Hollande needs to understand that there is nothing on the horizon to wait for,” Malek Boutih, a Socialist lawmaker close to Valls said last week. “The president is isolated within the left, within his own party and among activists. Francois Hollande needs to understand that his problem isn’t just the polls. His problem is his behavior and the book.”

Melenchon, education minister under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the early 2000s, left the Socialist Party in 2008 arguing that it had gone too far in its embrace of free-market principles. His program calls for France to exit European treaties, though it doesn’t mention the euro, seeks wage increases for the low-paid and an end to the wealthy “gorging themselves.”

On German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he is virulent.

“Merkel is the buoy that free-marketers of all colors are hanging on to after the collapse of their hero, Hillary Clinton,” he writes on his blog. “But Mrs. Merkel is anything but a rampart against Trump and all his European disciples. On the contrary, she is the best argument in their campaign.”

Euro-area countries with elections over the next 12 months

Melenchon himself is benefiting from the left’s despair at Hollande’s performance. Outside France, the sitting president is seen as lacking what it takes to move his country forward economically; many in his own party are frustrated by his record on deficit reduction, tax cuts for business and labor-market reform.

Valls, who until this week had signaled he was ready to run without confronting the president directly, may now be embarking on a campaign to save the Socialist Party from obliteration -- a fate that he has frequently warned is possible.

“What has happened between the prime minister and the president is spectacular,” Reynie said. “I have no inside knowledge but there is simply no question that they have had a massive argument privately. The left is in critical condition.”

— With assistance by Andre Tartar

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