The socialist veteran is surging in the polls
How ornery have the French become? How much are they still willing to vote for the ‘least bad’ contender (read: Emmanuel Macron), rather than for someone they genuinely would like to become president — or, failing that, for a spoiler candidate whose disruptive success would at last send the angry message they feel nobody has been listening to?
This, ten days before the first round of a presidential election that’s still more uncertain than expected, is a question that’s being asked on both Right and the Left. Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in a Socialist Cabinet, won his current top job (and hopes to gain a five-year extension) by promising to be all things to all parties. He called it en Même Temps (at the same time) during his lightning campaign five years ago: he’d pick measures, and politicians, from both Right and Left, depleting established parties and stealing their political oxygen.
Only the extremes seem to appeal to France’s mood. On the Right, that’s Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, polling together 32% of the vote — 4 points above Emmanuel Macron. On the Left, the star of the 70-year-old Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Maduro and Putin supporter who’s running for the third time, has been steadily rising, to the point that the enthusiastic crowds who attend his rallies have taken to chanting “On va ga-gner! On va ga-gner!” (We’re going to win”).
Mélenchon, a former choirboy who became a state school French Lit teacher, is a rousing orator. A longtime member of the Socialist party (he was briefly a junior minister under PM Lionel Jospin in 2000), he became a machine politician in Essonne (South Paris) politics, which won him a seat in the Senate. He then veered Left, rising in opposition to a “reasonable” (he called it “compromised”) leadership and turning into a Corbyn figure in a Blairite-like party.
He then created a number of vehicles that have developed into his current party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). He has called for French withdrawal from Nato; shown sympathy for redrawing the borders of Crimea in favour of Russia; and his 2017 presidential platform demanded that France’s overseas départements of Guyane, Martinique and Guadeloupe join the Bolivarian Alliance created by Hugo Chavez in 2004.
And yet Mélenchon is increasingly seen as the only Left-wing vote utile, the candidate who could make it to the runoff. Even a week ago, this seemed impossible, but this week, at 15% in the polls, he stands third after Emmanuel Macron (28.5%) and Marine Le Pen (21%).
Éric Zemmour, who briefly reached 19%, has now fallen to fourth place at 10%, half a point ahead of Valérie Pécresse. Past pro-Putin statements, then an initial, reflexive refusal to admit Ukrainian refugees, have cost him dearly, while, by contrast, Mélenchon’s similar views were seemingly priced in from the start, and are disregarded now. Ségolène Royal, the former 2007 Socialist presidential candidate against Nicolas Sarkozy, and a woman with an eagle eye for the main chance, has declared for Mélenchon.
Voters who, from Chirac to Macron, cast their ballot to prevent a Le Pen from seizing power, now say they’ve had it with voting “with gritted teeth”. Mélenchon will be a first round choice for many of them, with a hopes of a surprise in the runoff.