The history of the far left is not short of strong, charismatic men who dominate the will of the public with the force of their character and the bombast of their rhetoric. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with his insoumis movement fits into this historic line quite neatly. An ambitious plan to reshape society primarily resting on his own force of personality, and a political movement firmly based around his person. His oratory talent, flushes of humour, and sense of outrage have captured the hearts of many voters, who are peeling off from his slightly-more-to-the-centre Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon. And yet he is a man of contradictions, that thus far are being overlooked by the media, and more surprisingly by his own rivals.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon has undergone a considerable transformation since his campaign of 2012 ended with a disappointing score of 11%, having previously surged in the last couple of weeks. He is enjoying another surge now, and has reached third place with 19% in recent polls. His ability to move into third place has been explained by his more jovial and down to earth style (he was enormously abrasive in 2012, and still can be with the media) and his pedagogic performance in the two debates. He also benefits from Benoit Hamon’s deflating campaign and a sag in Emmanuel Macron’s support and a downplaying of his previously vocal support for immigration.
Fundamentally however, people are choosing the man, and not the policies.
Monsieur Mélenchon is not a man that is easy to pin down on a lot of policy. His lengthy policy documents on his website are rarely referred to by the candidate, who even goes as far as suggesting that he isn’t quite sure what is in them in some speeches. He almost never engages with a specific question on a matter of policy. This is often because he doesn’t actually want to be President; at least, not of this political regime. His clarion call is for a Sixth Republic, essentially a new constitutional order which would replace the executive President of the current Fifth Republic, which has increasingly sucked power out of the other parts of the State with the power that direct election creates, with a weaker figurehead and a reinforced role for Parliament. The problem with this idea is twofold. First, it cannot be implemented by a newly elected Mélenchon: he would have to organise a directly elected constituant assembly to rewrite and proclaim (probably after plebiscite) a new constitution. It isn’t at all clear that the public would support the kind of regime. A strong executive is a frequent feature of French Constitutions and the last time a regime akin to Mélenchon’s preferred option was in place, it was the Fourth Republic which collapsed in a state of political paralysis (although it is probably fair to say that this was caused not so much by the regime’s design, but by its circumstances. Such a regime’s politics would also be very unpredictable and it would be unlikely to calmy implement the remaining aspects of Mélenchon’s programme (he having effectively neutered himself). Second, it would probably take several years, during which the country’s politics would be completely paralysed. Don’t look to Mélenchon for any quick fixes.
Indignation is instead his forte. Wonderful at railing against problems, he rarely talks about solutions. This is most clear when it comes to his policy towards Europe, which is something of a mess, not because he doesn’t know what he wants, but because he doesn’t really want to tell us. Mélenchon has long been part of the left’s anti-Europe wing, not for reasons of national sovereignty as much as the distrust of Europe’s capitalist agenda colours everything it does and could do. He claims the current treaties prohibit social and fiscal harmonisation (they don’t – they just make it difficult without consensus). Having supported the “No” campaign in the 2005 referendum on the ineptly named “European Constitution” because of his opposition to free market competition rules (which had been in place since 1958 and remain so to this day), he really wants France out of the European Union. Knowing this is largely seen as unpopular (and piqued by the similarities between his position and Marine Le Pen’s – his arch-enemy) he masks it by saying he wants to renegotiate the treaties to make them more social. He knows this is politically impossible but won’t really admit the consequences of his own position.
His foreign policy is downright bizarre. Having suggested that perhaps the borders of Europe could be reviewed during the debate on 20 March to accommodate Russia (in some unspecified manner that sounded darkly like allowing Russia to keep Crimea at the least) he continues to smile on Vladimir Putin. Whilst it seems that not even Mélenchon can defend the state of Venezuela anymore (his Chavez obsession has been muted for the campaign’s duration) he continues to stress that engagement and not sanctions are the solution to the tensions with Russia. His latest statements on the chemical attack on Syria, where he seems to question the likely Russian complicity (or at the least negligence) in the attack, and even the Syrian government’s guilt, highlight his greatest failing: he is unable ever to admit that his opponent (in this case Donald Trump) might, even on a specific issue, be anything less than totally wrong.
Mélenchon’s tribalism, his unflinching arrogance, his anger at all that don’t just oppose but merely disagree with him, have yet to receive proper scrutiny. Only Hamon in the 20 March debate went after Mélenchon, and then appeared to regret it. No other candidate seems to want to engage with a man that has fired up youth supporters like no other. However they must, for in a second round between Le Pen and Mélenchon, many voters on the right and in the centre, will flinch at maintaining a “Republican Front”. Macron hasn’t collapsed yet to the extent that Mélenchon could make it into the second round, but a strong showing in the Legislative elections the following month could give him a power base to continue to snipe from the sidelines, as he slowly digests what remains of the French Communist Party – once the largest such party in the world.
Whilst Le Pen and Macron focus on each other, only Fillon and Hamon would really benefit from taking support away from Mélenchon (although Le Pen would do well to realise that the few points she has lost in the polls in the previous weeks having probably gone over to Mélenchon). Macron’s supporters are unlikely to be wavering between Mélenchon and En Marche, although more of Mélenchon’s supporters would vote Macron in the second round than Le Pen. Hamon is probably too distant from Mélenchon now to make much difference, and Fillon’s supporters are more likely to vote Macron and set their expensive cars on fire than vote Mélenchon. So Jean-Luc is in a sweet spot electorally, with no obvious threat in site. He has in effect created his own niche, and will remain that way unless he fades, as he did in 2012, or until his policies are shown for what they truly are: a fig-leaf for his own ambition to wreck the State and the Europe that he hates so much. The real danger is that he does not know and does not seem to care what replaces it.