There’s no election quite like a French presidential contest. It is a six-month-long race in which nearly every political stable usually has a runner and where the handicapping system is less rigged against “outsiders” than in many other countries.
It puts a premium on personality: a candidate who strikes voters as fresh, sincere and “not a politician” has a chance to win more support than in other elections.
Over the years the system has allowed far-left candidates to make their mark. Blunt and passionate working-class battler Arlette Laguiller of Workers Struggle (LO) was a regular star between 1974 and 2002, when she scored 1.6 million votes (5.7%).
At the 2007 poll, the fresh face was the Revolutionary Communist League’s (LCR) Olivier Besancenot. A young postal worker, he increased the 1.2 million votes he received in 2002 to 1.5 million (4.1%).
For a while, Besancenot was rated France’s most popular politician.
Since 2002, there has been a decline in the vote for French Communist Party (PCF) candidates, who received 21.3% in 1969 and 15.4% in 1981. In 2002, Laguiller and Besancenot won more support than the PCF’s Robert Hue (3.4%). By 2007, the PCF vote had collapsed to 1.9%.
This year, the PCF decided not to stand in its own name, but to support the candidate preselected by the Left Front. This was Jean-Luc Melenchon, a long-time leader of left currents in the Socialist Party (PS).
Melenchon abandoned the PS after its 2008 congress rejected a left-wing motion demanding a break from neoliberal policies and reconnection with working-class aspirations.
Along with other disillusioned PS members, Melenchon formed the Left Party, inspired in part by Germany’s Die Linke (The Left). The Left Party subsequently initiated the Left Front as an electoral alliance with the PCF and other smaller left forces.
Melenchon’s campaign has been the main novelty of the contest, the first round of which will take place on April 22.
As election day approaches, polls show support for Melenchon at between 14% and 17%, competing for third place with Marine Le Pen of the racist National Front (FN).
Incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, of the Union for People’s Movement (UMP), and the PS’s Francois Hollande share the lead at between 26% and 30%.
The Melenchon campaign is changing political dynamics to the left of the PS. For two decades, it has been a tussle between the PCF, Trotskyist organisations such as LO and the LCR, and the Greens.
Over the past six months, backing for the Left Front candidate has tripled at the expense of all other left candidates.
Support both for Hollande and for Eva Joly of Ecology Europe-Greens (EELV) has fallen by up to 5%. Support for far left candidates, LO's Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), has stalled at 1% or less.
What explains this success?
At its core lies Melenchon’s outright rejection of neoliberalism and the call for a “citizen’s revolution” against the bankers and the ruling rich.
Melenchon sees rising mass resistance to neoliberal austerity in France leading to the emergence of a “Sixth French Republic”, embodying economic and social justice, popular democracy and environmental sustainability.
The echoes of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s Movement for a Fifth Republic, the initial political form of the Bolivarian revolution, are not accidental.
Melenchon, whose mother was Spanish, has a history of solidarity work with struggles in Latin America. The right-wing media deride him as “le petit Chavez” for his oratorical style.
The main Left Front proposals are an immediate return to the 35-hour working week, retirement at 60 on the full pension (at least 75% of final earnings), a 22% rise in the minimum wage to 1700 euros a month and a cap on maximum salaries.
It also proposes making 800,000 casual jobs in the public sector permanent.
Welfare measures include 100% coverage of health costs, the creation of half a million pre-school places, an annual social housing target of 200,000 homes, a freeze on housing rents and a 10 billion euro expansion of investment in education and research.
The public sector would grow through re-nationalisation of the big energy companies and the creation of 11 new public services. These would cover areas such as social housing, savings and credit, health, training, information and culture, pharmaceuticals, transport and childhood services.
Comprehensive “ecological planning” would also be introduced.
There would be a veto on sackings in any industry making profits. Workers in factories marked down for closure or sale would be given favourable conditions for converting them into cooperatives.
The Left Front proposals would be funded by closure of tax havens, increased taxes on capital and the wealthy― including a 100% tax on earnings over 360,000 euros a year ― and restoring to the Bank of France the power to purchase state debt.
On foreign policy, the Left Front calls for withdrawal from NATO and a complete rethink of defence policy.
Melenchon’s opening rallies quickly showed that the campaign was in touch with popular sentiment. After his initial appearance before 3.2 million viewers on the national TV program Of Words and Deeds, the town halls and sports centres were full to overflowing, beginning with a 6000-strong meeting in Nantes.
The Left Front candidate took advantage of the January downgrading of French public debt to protest outside Standard and Poors Paris office and to identify himself as “the candidate of resistance to the ratings agencies”.
He also condemned new binding European Union rules restricting national budgets to deficits no larger than 0.5% of Gross Domestic Product as “an organisation of Europe that leads to catastrophe”.
The heart of Melenchon’s argument has been that an alternative policy to neoliberal austerity actually exists ― to make the rich and the bankers pay for their crisis. His meetings have combined an explanation of the feasibility of the Left Front program with caustic attacks on the “candidates of austerity”, and calls for resistance in the streets and workplaces.
The campaign has also been built up via tours of “constituencies”, such as high school and university educators, ecologists, public transport workers, farmers and artists and intellectuals.
One telling Melenchon intervention was to the national congress of France Nature Environment, at which the Left Front candidate spelled out an essentially ecosocialist vision.
An important target of the campaign has been “the forgotten people” in working-class suburbs where the FN has built support over the past 20 years, often at the expense of the PCF.
Melenchon told a 2500-strong meeting in Metz (where the FN won more than 20% of the vote in the 2010 regional poll): “Don’t yield to the party of the hatred that calls on you to divide yourself from others. Don’t allow yourself to be divided according to your religion or skin colour.
“There is only one rule that should define us with regard to others ― liberte, egalite, fraternite!”
On March 18, the 141st anniversary of the Paris Commune, came confirmation the Left Front campaign was biting.
Organisers were expecting 20,000 to 30,000 to show up for a march and rally to “seize the Bastille” in Paris. Up to 120,000 took part.
Further mass rallies, in Toulouse (50,000) and Marseille (100,000) have built on the success of Paris.
The surge in popularity for Melenchon has set off violent reactions across the French political spectrum. Laurence Parisot, head of the Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF), compared the Left Front campaign to the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.
The right-wing media has launched a predictable hunt for “dirt”, featuring Mélenchon’s youth in the Trotskyist Internationalist Communist Organisation (OCI) and his 2011 refusal to describe Cuba as a dictatorship.
Economic commentators described the Left Front program as unfunded, in violation of European Union agreements, and an unsustainable burden on business and state finances.
Some of the more virulent reactions have come from within the broadly defined left. On April 9, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, former May 1968 leader and EELV European deputy, attacked Melenchon in an interview in Le Monde for “the emergence of this Jacobin, centralising, parody left that is a blessing for Nicolas Sarkozy”.
On April 11, EELV candidate Eva Joly, down to 2% in the polls, recalled that Melenchon is “allied with the PCF, which is pro-nuclear, pro-productivist and pro-infrastructure”.
She described the Left Front program as “revolutionary, unrealisable and dangerous for Francois Hollande”.
A similar reaction came from French resistance veteran Stephane Hessel. With a nod to the 2002 presidential poll, in which the SP candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin, was pushed into third place behind the FN, Hessel called on Melenchon to withdraw from the race.
But from a different direction, readers of the daily Liberation were met on March 22 with a comment piece by NPA leaders Pierre-Francois Grond, Myriam Martin and Helene Adam that called for a vote for Melenchon instead of the NPA’s Philippe Poutou.
The three, leaders of the Anti-capitalist Left current within the NPA, said: “It is with bitterness but also with anger that we see our party give up on the commitment made at its founding ― to bring together all anti-capitalists into a mass party.
“The NPA, with its own candidate, is taking the path of marginalisation, which will prevent it from really influencing a political situation with major stakes.”
Poutou replied in an April 11 Le Monde interview: “There are demands in common with the Left Front, but there is also a solution which is not ours. That of working with the PS ...
“Our discussion is about a political tool that tomorrow will allow us to fight against capitalism, a discussion about expropriating the banks, about true democracy, about questioning the capitalists’ power over the economy.”
The NPA candidate said: “Building a PS Mark 2, a bit more radical than today’s version, is less complicated than building an anti-capitalist party.”
Whatever happens on April 22, it is clear Melenchon has shaken up French politics on all sides.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent. Read more articles by Dick Nichols.]