The Road to Paris: Mélenchon Reconciles the Left’s Past and Future

There is something very twentieth-century about Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s far-left candidate. He has captured France’s attention with his powerful rhetoric and Marxist vocabulary, and yet Mélenchon’s candidacy offers France a potential paradigm shift, which could propel France’s left into a new era. Mélenchon joined the Socialist Party in 1976 and became a minister and then a senator almost two decades later, but the political path to these positions involved significant political discord, as he clashed with members of his own party. Mélenchon stayed with the party despite many disagreements with its leaders, including the first secretary of the party, current  French President François Hollande, whom he considered too centrist. During the French European Constitution referendum of 2005, he campaigned against the referendum while high-ranking socialists voted in favor of it.

In 2008, he finally left the party and emerged as the major far-left candidate in the 2012 presidential election in which he represented the Left Front, a far left coalition of  parties. With Mélenchon, the left rediscovered a fierce orator capable of haranguing crowds, a French far-left tradition. He even competed with Marine Le Pen for a third position and his unexpected rise pulled Hollande further left on many issues. In the end, Mélenchon received 11 percent of the vote — a decent score but disappointing after his vigorous campaign.

Mélenchon rapidly recovered and evolved from a twentieth century far-left candidate into a twenty-first century one, although many aspects of his program remain classical. He still favors abandoning free-trade deals, including the recent EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Free Trade Agreement. He also wants to protect labor laws, increase the minimum wage, and further increase taxation on the wealthy.

However, Mélenchon cannot be summed up solely to these measures. As a self-proclaimed ecosocialist, Mélenchon imagined a “green rule,” which would force business to meet certain environmental standards. He also advocates France’s shift away from dependency on nuclear energy and more focus on renewable energies. Mélenchon also wishes to create a new constitution in which the electorate can revoke its elected officials. Even his communication resources have modernized, with the creation  of a YouTube channel that has twice as many subscribers as Donald Trump’s.

He also transgressed many of the left’s taboos. An open Eurosceptic, Mélenchon threatened to leave the EU if Germany refuses his European reforms. On national identity, Mélenchon privately admits his strong support for multiculturalism lost him many working-class votes in 2012 and now maneuvers prudently on matters such as Islam and immigration.

Unfortunately for Mélenchon, the political landscape has moved to his disadvantage in the past months. His old rival Hollande, whom he heavily criticized for abandoning the left’s ideals, decided not to run for re-election. Hollande’s prime minister and the strongest proponent of a centrist Socialist Party, Manuel Valls, ran in his party’s primary but lost by 16 points to the more radical Benoît Hamon, one of the strongest socialist opponents to the Hollande-Valls government since his eviction from the government in 2014. Hamon’s ideas overlap on many aspects with Mélenchon’s programs, reducing Mélenchon’s room for expansion.

Some grassroots supporters have called for a combined ticket that could propel the left to a second round run-off election against Le Pen. Although both sides negotiated a potential common ticket, Hamon oscillates around 15 percent in the polls and Mélenchon around 12 percent, and both candidates refused to step down or join forces in the end.

Nevertheless, Mélenchon has his experience, as well as new tricks up his sleeve. Two weeks ago he held rallies in Lyon and Paris simultaneously thanks to a real-time hologram of himself. Although these efforts may not win him the presidency, they at least symbolize Mélenchon’s success at reconciling the far-left’s past with its future.