the French left’s divisive standard-bearer

When dozens of leftwing politicians lined up for a photo last week to mark the launch of a new alliance for France’s snap elections, there was one notable absence: populist far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

By remaining in the shadows, Mélenchon — who has long been the left’s standard-bearer but divides leftist colleagues as much as he does the country — may have been trying to ensure the coalition’s unity.

“This is the new generation of the left,” Raphaël Glucksmann, a centre-left EU lawmaker whose party is part of the new alliance, said approvingly when asked about the 72-year-old Mélenchon’s no-show.

But hours later on Friday, the leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, or LFI) party, the largest member of the new alliance, reminded everybody that he remains a force to be reckoned with — and a tyrannical one at that.

Mélenchon carried out a late-night purge, striking off senior colleagues who had previously criticised his extreme positions and inflammatory tirades from LFI’s list of candidates.

“Candidacies for life do not exist,” Mélenchon said later, adding the “loyalty and political coherence” of his parliamentary group were essential.

Three rows of senior politicians lined up for a photograph
Mélenchon was absent when leftwing politicians lined up to mark the launch of the New Popular Front on Friday © Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Friday’s purge was an extraordinarily provocative step, coming on the very day the leftwing parties formally launched the New Popular Front, invoking the unity spirit of the original one under Léon Blum in 1936, when the left came together to thwart a far-right takeover of France. Several of those excluded by Mélenchon had been strong proponents of such an alliance.

Their ousting triggered a furious backlash from LFI figures, with several denouncing Mélenchon’s autocratic manner.

“The leadership of France Insoumise, far from rising to the occasion, is stooping to the worst schemes,” François Ruffin, a dissident LFI MP, wrote on X. “Let’s not kid ourselves: you cannot, for country, aspire to peace and democracy, and for party, a reign of fear and brutality.”

The NPF — inspired by a determination to beat Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National — is a critical development in the run-up to the elections on June 30 and July 7. It could make it much harder for candidates for President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance to qualify for second round run-offs.

But the success of the pact could hinge on how Mélenchon behaves during the campaign, including whether he will lay claim to the role of prime minister, a troubling prospect for the other leftwing parties and many voters.

A former Trotskyist who served as a junior education minister in a socialist government from 2000-2 before turning to the Eurosceptic hard left, Mélenchon has long had a reputation as a political bruiser with a volcanic temper.

In one infamous moment in 2018, he angrily confronted an investigator who came to search his offices during a campaign funding probe, screaming into the man’s face: “La République, c’est moi!”, the equivalent of “I am the law!”

Although Mélenchon has a committed far-left following, some demonstrators marching against the far right in Paris on Saturday saw him as a liability.

Protesters against the far-right climb on the Triumph of the Republic statue in Paris
Protesters against the far-right climb on the Triumph of the Republic statue in Paris on Saturday © Sameer Al Doumy/AFP/Getty Images

“The goal is to stop the division of France, and Mélenchon divides it, unfortunately,” said Alex Assouad, a 23-year-old from the Paris region.

“He has the right ideas but the wrong method,” said Kevin Bartoume, 38, an IT engineer from the capital’s suburbs.

A gifted orator and debater, Mélenchon is the most successful recent vote-winner for the left. He won 22 per cent in the first round of the 2022 presidential election, coming third, just behind Le Pen.

That success, way ahead of the Socialist candidate’s 1.8 per cent, gave him and LFI the upper hand among leftist parties when they went on to form an alliance known as Nupes that lasted just over a year.

“He is a key figure, someone who has proved himself in the most challenging election in the French system, the presidential election,” said Bruno Cautrès, researcher at Sciences Po university. “He gave the left a future with the creation of Nupes, but in the end he was not able to manage the different people and temperaments within it.”

The first episode to fracture the Nupes was Mélenchon’s support for Adrien Quatennens, a close lieutenant, despite his admission that he had hit his wife. There were also fights over Mélenchon’s lukewarm support for Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The final breakdown came last year over Mélenchon’s refusal to condemn the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and downplaying of antisemitic incidents, stances that reflected both his revolutionary zeal and strategy of rallying Muslim voters.

Meanwhile, sloppily dressed LFI MPs hurling abuse at opponents have disrupted the National Assembly. Their conduct has lent weight to critics’ claims that Mélenchon, who guides his troops from outside the chamber, is a demagogue not committed to parliamentary democracy.

The MPs’ approach also contrasted with Le Pen’s attempts to present the RN as a responsible party of government, epitomised by her “necktie strategy”, an instruction to her MPs to dress smartly.

“We have certainly seen the normalisation of Marine Le Pen since 2022,” said Cautrès. “Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strategy meanwhile has been to take a much more radical stance.”

The public sees Mélenchon as a more polarising, less professional and less presidential than his far-right rival, according to an Ifop poll last year.

With LFI’s support shrinking to 10 per cent in European parliament elections on June 9 and the centre-left party led by Glucksmann winning 14 per cent, the power balance has shifted.

Under the terms of their new alliance, the centre-left will contest 100 more seats than at elections two years ago, although LFI is still running the most candidates of the NPF members.

The far left has made policy concessions. The NPF has adopted a radical programme with vast spending commitments, but LFI’s policy of reducing the pension age to 60 at a cost of €71.5bn a year is listed only as a “goal”. The NPF also committed to supporting Ukraine and denounced the Hamas attack on Israel as terrorism.

Even Mélenchon’s allies say a more consensual approach is needed to maintain unity.

“The campaign will undoubtedly be all the more collective,” said Manon Aubry, who leads LFI in the European parliament. She said the party would “propose not impose” its choice of prime minister if the left won.

Mélenchon himself signalled a partial retreat on Sunday, when his protégé Quatennens withdrew his candidacy. “I don’t want to be a problem. All our efforts must be for the victory of the NPF,” the party leader told France 3 television.

Philippe Marlière, professor of French politics at University College London, said it was “very clear that his party now understands that if the New Popular Front is to be successful and remain united during this campaign, Mélenchon should keep quiet and that’s a complete difference with 2022.”

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

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