Jean-Luc Melenchon. Credit: Trago / Getty

September 25, 2018   8 mins

Earlier this month President Emmanuel Macron was posing for selfies in the beautiful Vieux Port of Marseille when he stumbled across one of his fiercest critics.

The ‘accidental’ meeting was anything but. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard-left movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), knew that the young President had gone walkabout in the old port. He sent flunkies to arrange an impromptu meeting. Macron agreed.

A few days earlier, at a rally in his Marseille constituency, Mélenchon, 67, had insulted Macron for 90 minutes with blistering eloquence. President Macron, the self-professed radical-centrist reformer, was merely a “copiste” – a hack or scribe – for Brussels and Berlin. He was part of a money-obsessed, globalist conspiracy to “dismantle France”. He would suffer an “electoral spanking” in the European elections in March.

So the TV crews clustered around this ‘chance’ meeting expecting a verbal street brawl. They were disappointed. Macron was at his most charming. Mélenchon was strangely polite. Was Mélenchon – anti-capitalist, anti-EU, anti-Nato, buoyant in the opinion polls – the President’s worst enemy? No, Macron said, Marine Le Pen and the far Right were more dangerous. He enjoyed talking to Mélenchon, “even if we don’t always have the same ideas”.

The old firebrand looked startled, and then pleased, like a reprobate uncle who had been praised by a precocious nephew. The two men chatted quietly about Europe. The TV crews slunk away.

French commentators have struggled to explain this odd encounter. Could Mélenchon, a truculent man who has soured with age, finally be mellowing? Was his passivity part of a Mélenchoniste strategy to colonise the leaderless moderate Left and emerge as the François Mitterrand of the 2020’s?

Most commentary abroad has concentrated on Marine Le Pen as the main rival and potential successor to Macron. She remains a force in French politics but a diminished force, weakened by her poor performance in the second round of the presidential election last May, by her party’s financial problems and by internal divisions within her re-named Rassemblement National. In a Kantar-Sofres poll for Le Figaro this month, 34% of those questioned said that they wanted to see Mélenchon “play a bigger role in national affairs” in the years ahead. Only 16% said the same of Madame Le Pen.

After an accident-prone summer, Emmanuel Macron is struggling in the polls. One recent survey gave the President a 29% favourable rating, a point below François Hollande at the same stage in his one-term presidency. A Kantar-Sofres poll this week suggested that only 19% of French people took a positive view of his 16 months in power.

At the same time, the ex-Chirac-Sarkozy centre-right is weak, divided and badly led. Mitterrand and Hollande’s centre-left Parti Socialiste has ceased to count and almost ceased to exist. A boulevard is opening up for Mélenchon, starting with the European elections next year – and he knows it.

But who is Jean-Luc Mélenchon? Is he a serious contender for high political office? Is it possible that France and Britain will be ruled simultaneously by hard-left governments at some point in the next decade? What should we make of the fact that the generally rather Britophobic politician turned up at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this week?

Comparisons with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain are inevitable. Both have been catapulted, late in life, into national leadership roles. Both were long regarded as marginal figures, clinging angrily to outmoded leftist doctrines. Both have been re-booted by the failures of the well-meaning, reformist Left.

The parallels continue. Both men were unconditional cheerleaders for the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Both are anti-Brussels but profess abstract approval of the European dream. Both were local journalists as young men but have an extreme aversion to the press. Both have a record of supporting the most radical Palestinian causes. Both are fiercely anti-racist. Both have been accused of being anti-Semitic. Both have a tendency to give Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt in his confrontations with the West.

There are also important differences.

Mélenchon is a brilliant orator – by far the best public speaker in French politics today. He works a crowd skilfully, switching from revolutionary rhetoric to stand-up comedy, from insults to lyrical evocations of the superiority of French thought and political morality over the money-obsessed “Anglo-Saxons”.

Mélenchon is an intellectual, an expert on French poetry who has friends among the most conservative literary figures in the Académie Française. He is also a bruiser. He speaks when he chooses in jabbing sentences, littered with the verbal ticks and eloquent hand movements of the loudest man in the Bar de Commerce: “Bah, c’est comme ça…” Like Donald Trump, he has a great talent for the telling personal jibe. It was Mélenchon who dubbed François Hollande the “captain of a pedalo in a storm”.

Unlike Corbyn, Mélenchon has largely made his own luck. He split with the Parti Socialiste in 2008, after serving as a junior minister under Lionel Jospin. He has since created and abandoned a series of hard-left personal platforms, while fulminating against personality politics. He campaigned for an end to the Presidency-dominated Fifth Republic and its preference for the “homme providentiel” over parties and parliaments. At the same time, he switched party allegiances or alliances with bewildering frequency.

After siphoning away most of the remaining support of the Communist Party, Mélenchon severed ties with them before last year’s presidential election and created La France Insoumise. He scored almost 20% of the vote in the first round but came just behind Macron, Le Pen and the disgraced centre-right candidate François Fillon in an unprecedented four-way finish.

There are also significant ideological differences between Corbyn and Mélenchon. Corbyn’s politics are a moderate and frozen form of late 1960s international socialism – a kind of Trotskyism Lite spliced with realism. Mélenchon is anti-capitalist but also a passionate French patriot or nationalist.

He believes that the French Revolution gave the country a global calling to defend the “humanist” values of love and cooperation and solidarity. France, he says, should lead the opposition to the global hegemony of destructive “Anglo-Saxon ideas”, like free markets. It should become the international standard-bearer for the Republican values of Equality and Fraternity. Liberty is mentioned less often.

If you believe his rhetoric – detailed proposals are scarce – Mélenchon is more extreme than Corbyn. Many people on both Right and Left now question the post-1980s doctrine of obsessive deregulation. Melenchon goes much further. He speaks of “competition” as if it were an evil force. At the Marseille rally last month, he summed up his creed as follows: “As long as they impose this idea of competition between everyone and everybody there will be war between everyone and everybody in each country and war between all the countries.”

Although he was briefly a Trotskyist as a young man, Mélenchon’s political hero is not Marx or Trotsky. His favourite political-historic model is the Jacobin leader and instigator of the 1793-4 “Terror”, Maximilien de Robespierre. (Too bad about all those chopped heads, especially Robespierre’s own.) In sum, Mélenchon can best be described as, not a Gallic Corbyn, but a strange blend of the absolutist-priggish Robespierre and the knockabout Italian comedian-turned-politician, Beppo Grillo.

Although a mystical believer in France’s global mission, Mélenchon is not of French extraction. He was born in Morocco in August 1951 to French parents of Spanish and Italian origin. His father’s father’s surname was Melenchón. After his parents split up when he was 11 years old, he was brought up by his mother in Normandy and the Jura.

He was briefly a French teacher and a local journalist but has for the last 40 years been a professional politician. Despite his visceral hatred of “money values”, he has a reputation for being, at the very least, careful about money. There was merriment in the French press when it emerged that he was the richest of the leading candidates in last year’s presidential election, owning a string of relatively modest properties.

The success of La France Insoumise is largely due to Mélenchon’s appeal to young voters (a point of similarity with Corbyn). Almost one in three voters between 18 and 24 last year voted for Mélenchon. He is also popular with people of immigrant origin and with some “Bobos” (Bourgeois Bohemians). His appeal to blue-collar, white French voters is less evident. In 2012, he suffered a humiliating defeat when he challenged Marine Le Pen in her fiefdom in Hénin-Beaumont, near Lille in the post-industrial North.

There is another significant point of difference between Mélenchon and Corbyn. The Labour Party leader inherited a “broad church” and a “party of government”. His most passionate followers appear determined to narrow the church to a chapel by pushing out supporters of Blairism or centrism.

La France Insoumise, au contraire, though a rebels’ party by mission and by name, is trying to expand its ideological appeal. Mélenchon once refused to speak to centrists but he has been noted recently at drinks parties given by what remains of the Parti Socialiste (PS) in the National Assembly. He has also been trying to recruit senior members of the shattered PS to join his list in the European elections in March. Mélenchon said recently that his “heart” had been “saddened” by his estrangement from his “natural family” (ie, the Socialists). He would be delighted if their “paths could join once again”.

There was also his oddly consensual and respectful meeting with Macron in the Marseilles old port. He justified his behaviour later by saying that he owed respect to the office of President and the French state. In other words, he wanted to present himself as part of the French political system, not a wrecker.

Before the 2017 election, Mélenchon embraced the ecological cause and drained much of the support of the fratricidal French Greens. His allies say that he now believes that he has an opportunity to repeat the exploit of his one-time hero François Mitterrand in the 1970s and bind the splintered French Left into a movement capable of seizing power.

Several difficulties arise, however. The first is Mélenchon’s unclubbable personality. He is detested by some of the younger parliamentarians in La France Insoumise. There is also his age. He will be 70 at the time of the next presidential election in April-May 2022.

Another problem is the movement’s extreme or vague or empty position on most policy issues. La France Insoumise wants to abolish the Fifth Republic and return to a parliamentary system with frequent referendums to ‘recall’ politicians or abrogate laws. It wants to increase the minimum wage, award public employees eight years of frozen pay rises and reduce the retirement age to 60. It wants to phase out nuclear power (80% of France’s electricity) and impose 100% renewable energy within 30 years.

Any shift towards positions more saleable, first to moderate Socialists and then to the wider electorate, would bring cries of “treachery” or, worse, “reformism” from the various tribes of the hard left which now support Mélenchon.

And then there is the question of the European Union. Mélenchon is against it. A substantial majority of French people are not. Mélenchon regards the European institutions, and especially the Euro, as a form of German imperialism. He says that Brussels has become an agent of the Anglo-saxon obsession with markets, competition and money. He wants to scrap all the present treaties and start again. This is not an approach easily sold to the French electorate, as Marine Le Pen discovered last year.

It is especially difficult to see how Mélenchon could sell such ideas to a broadly pro-European French centre-left. The moderate section of the Left which voted for the centrist-arriviste Macron last year – mostly well-off, well-educated and international-minded – may be disappointed with the young President. It cannot stomach Mélenchon.

Europe was the glue which kept the Mitterrand coalition together. It could be the dynamite which blows any attempt a Mélenchon-led coalition of the Left apart.

All of this was, no doubt, in Emmanuel Macron’s mind when he patronised Mélenchon on the quays of the old port in Marseilles on 7 September.

Macron believes that Mélenchon’s popularity is helpful to his own chances of re-election in 2022. Ditto the continuing strength of Marine Le Pen. While they dominate the landscape to the Left and the Right, more consensual and more electable rivals cannot emerge.

And yet, and yet… The President is floundering in the polls. His reforms are taking longer than expected to boost the French economy. Political developments across Europe – Britain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, even Macron’s own rapid rise to power – suggest that traditional political maps are out of date.

Marine Le Pen appears fatally wounded. No convincing leaders are appearing on the centre-right or centre-left (although keep an eye on Xavier Bertrand, the moderate conservative President of the Hauts de France region around Calais and Lille).

Mélenchon does have an outside chance to be the Next Big Thing in French politics. He would have to bend his principles, especially on Europe. That would be unthinkable for a latter-day Robespierre. Wouldn’t it?

Paradoxically, Mélenchon’s best ally may be the constitution of the Fifth Republic that he professes to hate. Under its two-round voting system, he needs to assemble only 24 or 25% of the first round vote – maybe less – to reach the two-candidate run-off in 2022. He would probably not beat Macron in the second round of a straight fight. He would not beat a moderate centre-right candidate such as Bertrand. But what if his second-round opponent was Madame Le Pen?

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.