Leftist Mélenchon wears velvet glove to reach French election knockout round

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With just days to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, radical-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is mounting a serious challenge to the frontrunners, with opinion polls this week placing him neck-and-neck against conservative candidate François Fillon, and ever closer to the far-right’s Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, the longstanding favourites now losing ground. Christophe Gueugneau followed the firebrand’s last major meeting this week, when Mélenchon, who wants to install a Sixth Republic with stronger powers for parliament, a system of regular referenda, and a renegotiation of EU treaties, attempted to reassure voters that he is not the anti-democratic revolutionary his detractors claim him to be.

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It was Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s last major meeting before next Sunday’s first-round vote in what are arguably the most unpredictable presidential elections France has known.

Or rather, it was Mélenchon’s last major meetings – plural – because while the firebrand leftwinger, who has steadily climbed in opinion polls to reach a neck-and-neck fourth place, was physically present before a rally of 8,000 people in the town of Dijon, east-central France, his image was simultaneously relayed by hologram to five other meeting halls across mainland France and to another in the French Indian Ocean island of La Réunion, at a cost estimated at between 800,000 euros and 1 million euros.

With just days to go before the moment of truth emerges from the urns, his campaign team were buoyant. The enthusiastic public following roused by the 65-year-old candidate of the movement ‘La France insoumise’ (France Unbowed) over past weeks wherever he goes, from an open-air rally in the Old Port in Marseille to an omnibus tour of Paris by barge on Easter Monday, showed no signs of weakening.

His address at the exhibition hall in Dijon on Tuesday evening was to a full-capacity crowd, and Mélenchon’s aides claimed the same was the case for those sites where he appeared via hologram, in Nantes, Montpellier, Clermont-Ferrand, Nancy, Grenoble and Le Port (in La Réunion), which they claimed represented a combined attendance of 35,000. Added to that, the Dijon meeting was also relayed via YouTube and Facebook, which drew about 40,000 online viewers, many of them locked on before he had begun speaking.

Video showing Jean-Luc Mélenchon's rally in Dijon on Tuesday, projected by hologram to six other meeting halls (click to play, in French only).

The arrest on Tuesday of two men suspected of plotting an attack in the name of the Islamic State group on at least one of the leading three election candidates – centrist Emmanuel Macron, the conservative François Fillon and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen – prompted Mélenchon to begin by addressing his “personal solidarity” with his “rivals” who he said were targeted by “insane criminals”, adding: “Never will we hand criminals the present of dividing ourselves before them. They don’t impress us.” But Mélenchon insisted that the events should not stop the vigorous campaigning. “Let us intensify the respectful arguments between us, to show that nothing can manage to defeat our democracy,” he told the crowd, and with that said, the radical-left candidate returned to his campaign proper.

“It could be that we are heading for qualification,” he cheerfully announced, meaning that he now envisages being among the two candidates who this Sunday will emerge from the first round contest with the highest scores, sending them into the final knockout second round on May 7th.

 Latest opinion polls this week show Mélenchon at around 19% of voting intentions, trailing the scandal-hit conservative François Fillon by just half a point and adrift of the lead two, Macron and Le Pen, by just 4%. With around 30% of the electorate apparently undecided, Mélenchon’s hopes are not far-fetched.

Perhaps because of this, he has come under increasing fire from the Right and the rightwing press, notably accusing him of wanting to apply to France a regime similar to that of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, for who Mélenchon has openly spoke of his admiration, and also, in private, from French President François Hollande. During the meeting in Dijon, the radical-left candidate strived to reassure the public that he was not the extremist his opponents claim him to be. He cited the open letter of support for him published in daily Libération by 130 economists from universities in France and abroad who in typical style, he described as “130 potential finance ministers”. He cited expert analyses and commentary from the International Monetary Fund and published in the “major newspaper of the centre-right” Le Monde as giving credence to his programme.

He notably denied he was in favour of France leaving both the eurozone and the European Union (EU). “Don’t believe what they tell you, ‘he wants to leave Europe, the euro’ […] Come on, let’s be serious,” he told the meeting, explaining that he wanted instead to renegotiate EU treaties. I am sure to succeed [with that] because until now no-one has ever said ‘No’,” he said, adding that the member states of the EU “are not our enemies but also are not our masters, they are our partners and in a partnership you discuss problems in order to solve them”.

But Mélenchon moved on to place ecological issues centre-stage as the greatest political challenge ahead. Combating the dangers of global warming “which has begun” and the threat to “the only ecosystem compatible with human life” was the battle for which, he claimed, the rest of his programme is driven, beginning with the “general human interest, which corresponds with the aim of harmony with nature”. It is that “general human interest” which he said makes the fact that “one percent of the world’s population, the richest, own as much as the [remaining] ninety-nine percent” is intolerable. “There’s the scandal!” he growled, prompting approval from the crowd with jeers and boos at the absent wealthy elite.   

Against this “intrinsically bad and perverse system”, Mélenchon said he wanted to establish “other values, altruism and cooperation between human beings and peoples, rather than competition and war”. He attacked his principal campaign rivals – Le Pen, Fillon and Macron – for ignoring ecological issues “as if they didn’t know in what world they live”, adding, “they only speak about money”. Their propositions, he insisted, were opposed to all that he has argued for in his campaign.

Mélenchon notably targeted Emmanuel Macron, who served two years in the socialist government as economy minister until he stepped down last August to enter the election race on a maverick centrist ticket. Macron’s economic reforms included the opening-up of competition in the transport sector, and notably the arrival of Uber services in France which became a source of employment, albeit a controversially precarious one, for a number of young adults living in France’s impoverished and neglected urban suburbs with large populations of North African origin. Mélenchon cited Macron’s comments during a video debate organised by Mediapart last November, when he said, “Go to [Paris suburb] Stains to explain to the youngsters who are Uber drivers, and voluntarily so, that it would be best that they line the walls or deal in drugs.” The radical-left told the crowd in Dijon: “I say to Mr Macron that he should carefully weigh what he says, by thinking about the people who listen […] Discrimination by racial profiling, that’s enough! […] The French republic is as one and indivisible.”

“This man who tells you ‘I’d like France to be a start-up’ – and what else, yet?” Mélenchon continued, referring to Macron, the only candidate ahead of him who has garnered support from a section of the Left, including those on the rightwing of the Socialist Party, out of conviction, and others who see him as the most effective bulwark against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. “No, France is not a start-up, not a firm, it’s a people,” said Mélenchon. “I am the candidate of equality and social justice.”

Mélenchon’s proposition for constitutional change, the replacement of the Fifth Republic and its presidential system by the establishment of a Sixth Republic, with strong powers of parliament and decision-making on key questions by referendum, was recently dismissed as a recipe for a tyrannical parliamentarian regime and ineffective government by Paris university law professor Serge Sur, writing in an op-ed article published last week in Le Monde. “No, we’re not preparing a putsch,” the candidate told the meeting in Dijon. “The majority would be an unbowed majority, which has committed itself to respecting the programme,” he continued, adding “I don’t intend to organize my own rebels” in a reference to the divisions in the ruling socialist camp during President Hollande’s five-year term of office. “Parliamentarians must organize commissions of enquiry, for example about the sale of motorways for next to nothing.” He claimed his government, if elected, would have few ministers, but instead “high commissioners” with clearly defined missions: “We’re not in the process of sorting out I don’t know what issue in a congress, this is about transforming the country. The democracy to which I invite you to is not a problem for us, it is on the contrary a plus. French men and women, you will be invited to vote each time that there is a major issue.”

“Folks, you have reason to be happy,” concluded Mélenchon. “We’re told we are getting closer to qualification.”  He then led the crowd into a chant of “We’re here, we’re unbowed France”.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

 

English version by Graham Tearse

 

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