Meet France's Optical Illusion of a Revolutionary

The surging French leftist is making promises on which he knows he has no way of delivering.

He's everywhere, and nowhere.

Photographer: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon made a speech in seven cities at the same time -- in six of them, the media report, via hologram. The technology Melenchon actually uses is the perfect metaphor for his candidacy, whose success is the latest sensation of this wild campaign.

Star Wars-style 3-D holograms exist; in 2015, Korean researchers demonstrated an impressive early implementation, though the image flickered constantly and was tiny. Last year, Microsoft showed off a far better version, which required multiple cameras and massive processing power. Melenchon, however, uses nothing of the kind. The technology, provided by a 15-person startup called Adrenaline Studio, under license from London-based firm Musion, only requires one camera and no sophisticated computer equipment.

It's basically a technique introduced into theaters in 1860 by Professor John Henry Pepper and engineer Henry Dircks and known as Pepper's Ghost. A high-quality two-dimensional image is projected onto the floor and then reflected by a transparent surface placed at a 45-degree angle, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional stage presence. Pepper and Dircks did it with glass, which was cumbersome, tended to break and created imperfect "ghosts." And they only could project the image of an actor who was present at the theater.

Musion uses modern materials and streaming video; that's basically the degree of technological innovation. The effect is visually stunning, and celebrities ranging from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the U.K.'s Prince Charles and the singer Mariah Carey have used it -- but, despite Musion's, and Adrenaline Studio's, frequent use of the term "holographic," the images are not true holograms

Nor is Melenchon himself for real, despite his increased chances of getting into the May runoff round of the election with any of three other candidates -- centrist Emmanuel Macron, Republican party candidate Francois Fillon and the populist outsider Marine Le Pen.

A 65-year-old political veteran who wants to establish the retirement age at 60, he joined the Socialist Party in 1976, backed centrist President Francois Mitterrand, served in the senate and as a government minister, and only left in 2008 to seek his fortune in an alliance with the Communist Party. It's fashionable these days for establishment figures to don outsider disguises. But Melenchon is a pro: At rallies, his quips are impeccably timed, he dresses in the light-colored clothes the Pepper's Ghost technology requires, and he moves strictly within the limited space that allows his "holographic" image to be transmitted to other cities.

Melenchon's program, too, is a product of clever design -- both as practiced by web designers and of the political variety. Unlike his less-successful rival, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, Melenchon doesn't try out any of the potentially big new leftist ideas such as a basic income or a robot tax. Like the leftist parties of Germany, he's made the protection of tenants against landlords a mainstay of his program. The rest of it is filled with old-time socialist cliches such as a prohibitive tax rate for incomes above 400,000 euros ($429,000) a year, billed as a "salary ceiling," attacks against "speculative" banks and inherited wealth, promises of job guarantees, a 32-hour workweek and a 100 billion euro spending spree to achieve full employment. He's not overtly anti-European Union, but he wants an EU without German-dictated financial strictures such as requirements to pay back debts or keep down deficits. He's also a pacifist who's against military unions, in particular NATO and its support of "U.S. military adventures."

This tired mix, which Melenchon presents with the elan of a chef who has produced a somewhat personalized version of French onion soup, will never be tasted by the French public. President Francois Hollande's attempt to tax the rich doomed his presidency from the start, and if Melenchon gets elected and tries an even tougher version, he'll do no better. In any case, his proposals require broad parliamentary support, but nothing predicts a sweep for the extreme left in the June parliamentary election. The French voting public is split, but, if anything, polls show that the right and centrist forces are going to do better.

Melenchon's program establishes him as an enemy of the "presidential monarchy" in which the president can disband parliament but it cannot fire him. (There would be no way for Melenchon to get the Communist Party's support if he hadn't proclaimed that: The Communists oppose the direct election of the president). The implementation of the same program, however, would require a presidency with the formal and informal powers of a Vladimir Putin or a Hugo Chavez. In fact, any French president elected this year is likely to be hemmed in by the lack of a parliamentary majority. Traditional parties' popularity has eroded, but the French parliament is elected over two rounds in constituencies rather than under a proportional system, and only the older parties have the machinery required to get their representatives elected throughout France.

Melenchon quotes Victor Hugo's adage -- "We are your sons, Revolution" -- but he's a Pepper's Ghost of a revolutionary: His decades of political experience surely tell him he can't deliver on his radical platform. Yet there he is, in septuplicate, spouting fiery rhetoric. Melenchon taps into the leftist variety of the anger with the status quo that also propels Marine Le Pen on the right, but that anger needs a more genuine channel to become productive.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.