Presidential elections in France are a media spectacle rivalled perhaps only by those in the United States. In day-to-day life, there is also a real buzz as people argue and discuss the race on worksites, the street and, habitually, in cafes.
Streets are plastered with posters of candidates and clever activist propaganda (over the top of some street signs here, activists have put up “Impasse Sarkozy”).
This election, whose first round was on April 22, is proving to be particularly polarising. It has mobilised sections of the populace who in previous elections have felt alienated or disappointed by candidates, left or right.
The so-called centrist vote lost significant ground in this election from 2007.
With the campaign of Jean-Luc Melenchon for the newly formed parliamentary alliance Left Front, many people on the left have been given a feeling of hope they have not had for a long time ― or, for the young, perhaps ever.
Melenchon is the most successful single candidate to the left of the social democratic Socialist Party since Georges Marchais of the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1981.
The success of Melenchon’s anti-neoliberal campaign in framing the debate throughout the campaign has led many journalists to begin bemoaning that the rich are being “scapegoated”.
It is this so-called scapegoating that has appealed to the educated urban youth far more than the real scapegoating of immigrants that has defined the racist campaign of the National Front's Marine Le Pen.
Stepping off the metro in Paris for Melenchon’s public speech on the night of April 22, a large group of young men and women carrying flags of the Left Front began cheering and running enthusiastically towards the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad, where a huge crowd had assembled.
Among the crowd of thousands, youth made up a noticeable proportion. Interestingly, many were the most vigorous in singing the old socialist anthem “The Internationale” at the end of the meeting.
Various left-wing youth groups endorsed the Left Front campaign, including the Movement of Young Communists of France, which released a statement praising the Left Front for being “the sole force in leading a determined campaign against the extreme right”.
The other left parties, from the Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) to the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) and Workers’ Struggle (LO), appear to inspire the youth much less.
There was in no way the same buzz about these campaigns.
Many simply put this down to the undeniable combative charisma of Melenchon himself. But perhaps it had more to do with the ability of the Left Front campaign to speak to the here and now, and not appear to simply be rehearsing the same tired left-wing slogans and sectarian posturing.
In some ways, the night of the first round disappointed the left. The unprecedented success of the far right National Front (at roughly 18%) and the a vote for Melenchon lower than polls suggested (11%, as against polls of 15%-17%) combined to produce a mood of both deflation and outrage.
At each word mentioning Le Pen’s success, the crowd furiously chanted: “Resistance! Resistance!”
One young French woman I spoke to, a Spanish teacher and committed leftist, admitted she was going to go home and cry.
The stage has been set for a political showdown on May 1, ahead of the May 6 second round between right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande. Both candidates called for mass demonstrations on the day.