As the first round of the French presidential election draws near, it seems commentators everywhere are holding their collective breath. Most are all too willing to point out the close parallels between far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s and Donald Trump’s populist insurgencies, but just as many are equally unwilling to believe the same could happen in France.
In truth, it is still anyone’s game—including Le Pen’s. In the most recent polls, Le Pen and the center-left finance minister Emmanuel Macron are essentially tied with around twenty-three percent of the electorate each. (In French elections, there are two rounds: a preliminary, open round with many candidates, and a second, runoff round between the top two first round vote-getters.) For as much media attention as Le Pen has received, it may come as a surprise that she is only supported by less than a quarter of the French population. And as others may have noticed, even with Macron included, supporters of the two frontrunners sum to only about forty-six percent of the electorate. Assuredly, something odd is going on this election year in France. But what, exactly?
To get to the bottom of what is happening with the French electorate, we should first understand where that remaining fifty-four percent of the French vote is projected to go. For starters, the embattled center-right Francois Fillon—mired in a series of nepotism scandals—has managed to maintain a solid twenty percent. Until recently, Fillon had been considered the frontrunner to challenge Le Pen in the runoff round. But voters fled Fillon’s camp after news broke that the former prime minister had effectively embezzled public funds by fabricating salaried jobs for his wife and kids. Some former Fillon voters are now choosing to abstain, finding no alternative acceptable. Others have moved to support the center-left Macron, hoping to stave off Le Pen’s populist threat. It is widely assumed that the remaining Fillon supporters, relatively wealthy and politically moderate, will vote against Le Pen in the runoff regardless of her opponent if Fillon fails to advance. Anything can still happen, but Fillon–Le Pen is perhaps the least likely scenario.
Even including long-time frontrunner Fillon, thirty-four of the population remains unaccounted for. Nevertheless, with Le Pen, Fillon, and Macron representing the far-right, the center-right, and the center-left respectively, only one section of the French political spectrum remains unspoken for: the populist left. Until recently, this formidable bloc of French voters had been balkanized; there have been a number of obscure socialist candidates and a general protest movement against the election. But in just the last month and a half, the situation on the left changed—and fast.
Out of nowhere, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has skyrocketed in French polls to an almost unbelievable twenty percent. Furthermore, Mélenchon’s share of the vote has doubled in the last month, a pace that seems to be accelerating in the final stretch leading up to the April 23 election. Mélenchon seems not only to be unifying the recalcitrant French left in the last hour but also seems to be siphoning votes from the two frontrunners, Le Pen and Macron.
All this despite the fact that Le Pen has enjoyed an equivalent to President Trump’s around-the-clock cable spotlight, while Mélenchon has thus far only received a Bernie Sanders-worthy dismissal from the French corps. In a recent issue of Le Figaro, one of France’s most widely read publications, editors published a review of his policies entitled “Mélenchon: The French Chavez’s Delirious Platform.” Yet despite their best efforts, even the much-lauded editorial board at Le Figaro has been unable to halt this French socialist’s meteoric rise.
Whatever Le Figaro may have to say about it, Mélenchon’s platform is perhaps now France’s favorite; a full sixty-eight percent of French voters expressed a favorable opinion of Mélenchon and his policies in the most recent poll, making him France’s favorite politician. Understanding what these policies are—and how they overlap with those of Macron and Le Pen—can tell us a lot about the peculiar mood of the French electorate in this unprecedented election.
First off, like Le Pen, Mélenchon intends to hold a public referendum on France’s membership in the European Union much like the one conducted last summer in Britain. It’s a question that needs to be settled, as the country has been virtually split on “Frexit” in all recent reputable polls. But given France’s decade-long malaise under the euro since the 2008 financial collapse, many in France are clamoring to break free from Germany’s rigid monetary regime. Second, unlike Le Pen, Mélenchon has shown sympathy to Syrian migrants, though unlike Macron, he is not an advocate for continued immigration, and Mélenchon appears committed to protecting the residency rights of refugees currently living in France. This balanced immigration policy—a middle ground between the moral responsibility to humanely address the migrant crisis and the realities of a struggling economy—seems to be exactly what most French voters were looking for.
But above all, what has powered Mélenchon’s rise is his far-left brand of fiery, compassionate, anti-establishment populism. Mélenchon’s plan offers France a radically different way forward. He has promised to pursue an aggressive tax-and-spend policy to reverse growing income inequality, including a ninety percent tax on income above €400,000 in order to fund a massive investment in public services and infrastructure. And in addition to holding a referendum on the euro, Mélenchon promises to withdraw France from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization—institutions many anti-establishment French perceive as instruments of a now-failed neoliberal capitalist order.
Why this policy prescription has siphoned votes from both the center-left Macron and far-right Le Pen in recent weeks should be no surprise. Many working-class French voters are on board with Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and anti-globalization stances, but still favor pro-worker and pro-union socialist parties when it comes to economic policy. Other left-wing voters have gathered around Macron, despite his establishment reputation, for fear of the possibility of a thoroughly unattractive Le Pen–Fillon runoff. Now that Mélenchon has emerged as a viable, competitive option, voters in both these columns may feel justified opting for their more preferred candidate in the upcoming first round.
With the vote so close in this last week before the first round, and the momentum at Mélenchon’s back, it is truly anyone’s election. While Le Pen–Macron remains the most likely runoff matchup, Le Pen–Mélenchon or even Mélenchon–Macron are both well within the realm of possibility. And for those worried about Le Pen’s prospects in the general, hear this: the only matchup that would give Le Pen a fighting chance is against Fillon. Though Le Figaro and others would like to make you believe a Mélenchon advance puts France at risk, if anything, it is France’s safest bet. If we learned anything from this November, it is that when the mood of the country is anti-establishment, you had better run an anti-establishment candidate.
On the Monday before the first round of the election, Mélenchon gathered seventy thousand supporters in Toulouse to rally the campaign line. It was a magnificent display of how far France’s dark horse candidate had come in just a handful of weeks. “The important, the powerful, the masters of the earth,” roared Mélenchon, “You have reason to be worried! Hear this!”
Mélenchon’s movement is more than a mere repudiation of Le Pen’s xenophobic populism; it is a call for the fundamental change in the principles of French government. A victory this May could be one of those rare moments in a nation’s history where an electorate redefines who they are. Beyond France, a leftist triumph could provide inspiration for those fighting around the world to reclaim economic rights lost to the tides of unchecked globalization. But most importantly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon could be the savior a beleaguered France needs. Mélenchon has promised to do what other French politicians gave up a long time ago—not just to save the French welfare state, but also to revitalize it. With innovative, even radical, pro-growth and anti-inequality policies, it is more than achievable—it’s gravity.