“Resistance!” they chanted in their tens of thousands on Marseille’s Vieux Port, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon held fort on stage, the harbour glistening behind him.
As in 2012, the hard-left firebrand with a gift for oratory is enjoying a surge in opinion poll support ahead of the presidential election. But this time the uncertainty amid the collapse of mainstream candidates is making many take his chances far more seriously.
The head of “La France Insoumise” (Unsubmissive or Unbowed) inspires an emotional response among many on the French left. It would be wrong to dismiss the 65-year-old as a socialist relic: his campaign has been generally praised as the most successful, with its shrewd use of social media and campaign techniques including virtual appearances at rallies via hologram.
The veteran socialist who broke with the mainstream party in 2008 remains an outsider, but the prospect of the Communist-backed candidate making it to the presidential run-off – and possibly further still especially if up against the far-right Le Pen – is no longer seen as impossible.
While his supporters exalt in what they see as the incarnation of policies grounded in social solidarity to challenge the neo-liberal economic order, Mélenchon’s detractors castigate what they see as a basket-case programme of Latin American proportions. “Mélenchon: the crazy manifesto of the French Chavez,” ran the front-page headline in the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro this week. While the emergence of another Eurosceptic challenger in the race alongside the Front National leader has unleashed market jitters and set brows sweating across the EU.
Here are some examples of the main points as set out in the candidate’s programme “L’Avenir en Commun” (A Common Future) and in his speeches and interviews.
- negotiate a “democratic reconstruction” of European treaties. In case of failure, withdraw from the European Union. Several conditions attached to remaining in the euro. Pull out of the EU’s Stability Pact and fight for an overhaul of sovereign debt. Stop free-market policies which “ruin developing economies and destroy European industry”. Propose an alliance with southern European countries to counter austerity. Respect Brexit without “punishing” the UK for its decision to leave the EU, but withdraw from the “Le Touquet” accord which place British border controls in France. – Stop negotiations with the US on a free-trade agreement and reject the CETA deal with Canada – withdraw from NATO and the World Bank. Refuse any permanent military permission unless backed by the UN. – develop closer ties with Russia. – join ALBA: formerly the “Bolivarian alliance” set up by Latin American presidents Castro and Chavez in 2004 – a system of mutual economic aid based on social welfare. Observer countries include Syria and Iran. Even left-wing journalists point out the “democratic deficiencies” of Cuba and Venezuela. But Mélenchon’s team have attacked the way they have been vilified on this, saying adhesion would give a voice to French territories in the Caribbean.
- an increase in public spending of 173 billion euros over five years and an investment plan worth 100 million euros. High incomes of over 400,000 euros a year to be taxed at 90%. Critics have said the plan would mean huge tax rises generally. – a 16% rise in the minimum wage to 1326 euros net a month, based on a 35-hour week. – abolish the “loi travail” – the labour law introduced under President Hollande designed to make it easier for firms to hire and fire employees. Mélenchon is against localised negotiating practices, insisting France can have “only one ‘Code du Travail’ (Labour code”. – limit executive pay. – lower the retirement age to 60 on a full pension. – separate investment banks from other banking operations.
- adopt a “Green rule”: the principle of not using more of planet’s resources than can be put back. Mélenchon believes this should be Brussels’ “Golden Rule” instead of aiming to get the public deficit under three percent of GDP. – move to 100% renewable energy by 2050, via ditching nuclear power on which France currently depends. “A machine to create millions of jobs”, the candidate says.
- make the right to housing a constitutional right along the lines of the right to property – compulsory “citizens’ national service”: an obligatory period of nine months for under-25s, including initial military training. – the family allowance system to be replaced by a fixed tax credit of 1,000 euros per child. – restore protections for French industry; nationalise utility companies.
- Not “massive regularisation of clandestine migrants” as his critics have denounced, but give legal status to those who have a work contract and “welcome refugees” who are eligible for asylum.
- create a Sixth Republic (France currently operates under the Fifth Republic introduced under President de Gaulle in 1958). Move away from a “presidential monarchy” towards a true parliamentary system. Increased participation from citizens by giving people the power to call referendums and evict elected representatives during their mandate. – reform of the judiciary to make it more independent from the executive.
The head of the French employers’ federation said France was facing a “historic moment” – and that a run-off between Mélenchon and Le Pen would be like a choice between “economic disaster and economic chaos”.
The candidate’s response to his detractors: “They announce that my winning the election would bring nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and the landing of the Venezuelans,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon told a campaign rally this week. “They are taking you for imbeciles.” He also predicted that French workers would “spit blood” if any of the other three main candidates became president.
Even if the far-left challenger were to make it to the presidential run-off, or even the Elysee Palace, analysts have pointed out he would likely face an uphill struggle to win a parliamentary majority in legislative elections to follow.