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France’s Far-Left Firebrand: Ready to Govern?

LocalFrance’s Far-Left Firebrand: Ready to Govern?

Emphatic, pugnacious and demanding: The style met the moment in the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s speech to a fired-up crowd of thousands celebrating victory in Sunday’s French legislative elections.

Standing before supporters in the working-class 20th arrondissement of Paris, Mr. Mélenchon addressed himself to President Emmanuel Macron, and not politely. “The president should either resign or name one of us prime minister,” he declared.

Other leftist leaders have said that there should be “discussions” about the future of the country. Not this one. The crowd on Sunday roared.

Mr. Mélenchon’s tone and hard-line stance have given him a devoted, youthful following — the only leftist leader with one — and made him both adored and hated, marginalized and central in French politics. More French have a negative opinion of him, 73 percent, than they do of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally. But he also attracts large crowds who hang on his every word, as they did on Sunday.

Now he is necessarily at the center of the discussion of what might lie ahead for France: his brand of leftism or the milder form represented by his critics within the winning leftist coalition, the New Popular Front. His party, France Unbowed, won the most seats in Parliament, 75, in the coalition.

He has said the person chosen to lead the government should be himself. Unlike the other leaders on the left, he has come close to the presidency, nearly making it to the runoff two years ago. He told France 5 television on June 22 that “very obviously” he was ready to be prime minister. “I intend to govern this country,” he said.

It is a prospect that even members of Mr. Mélenchon’s own coalition, wary of what is viewed as his intermittent extremism, have vowed will never happen. “If he really wants to help the New Popular Front, he should put himself off to the side,” said François Hollande, the mild-mannered former president, a Socialist and now newly elected deputy, two weeks ago. “He should just shut up.”

He is not going to, and that is both a source of his support and his major problem with the others in the leftist coalition that almost immediately threatens to fracture despite its narrow victory on Sunday.

“The problem they will have, when the president looks for a new government, the others don’t want Mélenchon,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist and research director emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research. “He makes a real union of the left impossible. He’s very provocative. The left is totally disunited.”

For now, France is without a government, and it is not clear how it will get one. No party or alliance won a majority in the elections. Despite that fact, Mr. Mélenchon said on Sunday, “We’re not going to cancel a page or a comma of our program.”

That program is a redistributionist, egalitarian, hostile-to-capitalism economic vision that was inspired in large part from Mr. Mélenchon’s 2022 presidential platform.

On Sunday, he spoke of the coalition’s economic plans as if he owned them: raising the monthly after-tax minimum wage to 1,600 euros, from 1,398 euros (or about $1,700 from about $1,500) — “We’ll decree it,” Mr. Mélenchon said; freezing prices on food, energy and fuel; $162 billion in taxes on the rich. Other elements include payments to households for costs associated with their children’s education. The right, and Mr. Macron, have criticized it as adding an unbearable fiscal burden to an already deeply indebted country.

Mr. Mélenchon didn’t even have to bring up another signature element in the left’s platform: “Retirement at 60!” the youthful crowd began chanting spontaneously.

It is hard to imagine Mr. Macron appointing Mr. Mélenchon prime minister. They are not fans of each other. Mr. Macron has compared the leftist’s political movement to the far right National Rally. Mr. Mélenchon is happy to return the compliment.

“Under his baton, France has become a global example of police violence and government abuse of power, in a regime that is supposed to be democratic,” Mr. Mélenchon wrote of the president in his 2023 book, “We Can Do Better! Toward a Citizens’ Revolution,” which was not translated.

He fights with the media, targeting individual reporters, professes hate for the United States and love for leftist Latin American dictators whose prolixity he shares. He has offered praise for authoritarian regimes in China, Cuba and Venezuela. “The Yankees represent everything I detest,” he told Le Monde in 2011. “A pretentious and arrogant empire, made up of ignoramuses, of pitiful leaders.”

A former Trotskyist, longtime senator from the Paris exurbs and onetime government minister under the pragmatic Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, Mr. Mélenchon is a reader of Faulkner who left the Socialists in 2008 to found his own party, moving further and further left.

He has refused to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization, has fought publicly with the leaders of Jewish organizations in France and is regularly accused of antisemitism, which he denies. He sometimes traffics insinuations that are stereotypes, once saying, for instance, that a Jewish former economy minister, Pierre Moscovici, didn’t “think French” but thought “international finance.”

“There is at least an ambiguity there that favors antisemitism,” Mr. Grunberg said.

Patrick Weil, another political scientist, agreed: “There’s a limit to Mélenchon. He’s considered by a big part of the population as dangerous and antisemitic.”

When Mr. Mélenchon said on Sunday that a top priority would be to “recognize as quickly as possible the state of Palestine,” the crowd erupted in roars of “Free Palestine.” As at other Mélenchon rallies, kaffiyehs and Palestinian flags were much in evidence.

One of his longtime heroes is Maximilien Robespierre, the most bloodstained of the French revolutionaries, and during the campaign he showed his own authoritarian side, purging five members of his France Unbowed party who had often disagreed with him. “Our democracy deserves better than you,” François Ruffin, an independent-minded deputy and party member who was not one of those purged, posted on social media.

Yet he has a formula — populist economics to appeal to hard-up youths, fierce hostility toward Israel to appeal to working-class French Muslims in the suburbs, anti-American and anti-Europe rhetoric, and a pro-immigrant stance — that proved to be a winner in this election. Many in the crowd on Sunday cheering him on were of Arab and African origin. “The French people are not a religion, not a skin color,” Mr. Mélenchon said.

He is the rare French politician who speaks approvingly of immigration, employing the term “creolization” to describe his country, as he did Sunday. “That is very positive,” Mr. Weil said. “He integrates into citizenship young people of North African and African origin. He says France has become a melting pot. It’s super important.”

It is one of the many things that has earned him supporters. In a pre-emptive move on Monday, one of France Unbowed’s leaders, Mathilde Panot, told the RTL radio station that Mr. Mélenchon was “absolutely not disqualified” to be prime minister.

There were echoes of his hero Robespierre, who presided over the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, in his rhetoric Sunday night.

“The government of the New Popular Front will have no other authority than what the people give it,” he said — a line that could have been written 230 years ago by Robespierre, a man who ceaselessly proclaimed that “the people” were the only source of government authority.

“It’s not the politics of the past that will continue,” Mr. Mélenchon said, “it’s the people who have surged up from all the working-class neighborhoods.”

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