Analysis: French presidential election 2012

Rise of hard-left's Mélenchon puts Hollande presidential campaign under pressure

Reuters/Benoit Tessier

France’s Socialists are desperately trying to rally the left around presidential candidate François Hollande after hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon assembled tens of thousands of supporters on Paris’s Place de la Bastille on Sunday.


“If you want effective change, François Hollande is obviously the one proposing it,” commented former prime minister Laurent Fabius on radio Monday, although, he quipped, his candidate’s programme “may be less romantic than some others”.

And Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë called for unity in the first round of voting, so that Hollande could win the second, “which everyone who was at the Bastille yesterday wanted”.

Hollande, speaking to France Info radio on Monday, seemed offended by Mélenchon’s claim that he was campaigning “just like Daddy” and insisted that he had to be more restrained than his rivals on the left because he was out to win.

But the Socialists are trying hard not to alienate the 10-11 per cent of voters who have told pollsters they intend to vote for the Left Front candidate in 22 April’s first round.

Even Hollande’s campaign spokesperson Manuel Valls, who was the most right-wing Socialist to seek nomination in the party primaries, was studiously polite to Mélenchon, hailing his “loyalty” and “commitment” and noting public “indignation” at inequality and “a finance capitalism that has plunged countries, especially European ones, into austerity”.

But, he added, “Anger isn’t enough to win.”

Organisers of Sunday’s pro-Mélenchon march and rally, heavy on revolutionary symbolism with its call to “storm the Bastille” and a speech from the candidate that namechecked 1789 and socialist idol Jean Jaurès, claimed that 120,000 people turned out, although police estimates were, predictably, substantially lower.

The demonstrators was were buoyed up by their candidate’s rise in the opinion polls after a series of successful public meetings and pugnacious television appearances.

Recent polls put him at 10-11 per cent, just as Hollande’s lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy narrows or even, according to some, disappears.

That makes 14 per cent of left-wing votes eluding the Socialists, if promises for other candidates to their left are added.

So far, the pressure from the left has not transformed self-styled “Mr Average” Hollande into a firebrand.

The Socialists seem confident that left-wingers’ overwhelming desire to see the back of Sarkozy will mean polarisation around the two front-runners on polling day and see their task as attracting Sarkozy defectors and people who regard themselves as moderates.

While calls to tax the very, very rich and renegotiate European treaties are pitched at an anti-capitalist sensibility, the party is anxious not to upset the capitalists themselves, given that they will control the economy after the election, and hope to win votes from the centre by staying consensual.

Mélenchon, who quit the Socialist Party in 2008, has succeeded in becoming the only significant candidate of the quarrelsome and divided hard left.

That’s no mean feat, given that that the only sizeable formation in his Left Front is the Communist Party, whose electoral support had been plummeting since Georges Marchais won 15.4 per cent in 1981.

Two Trotskyists and a Green beat the party’s candidate, Robert Hue, in 2002, while in 2007 Trotskyist Olivier Besancenot came in fourth, with 1,498,581 votes compared to Communist Marie-George Buffet’s 707,268.

Residual bitterness and suspicion that he might join a Socialist-led government mean that two Trotskyist groups intended to stand in 2012 but both with little-known candidates replacing their high-profile predecessors, while Green candidate Eva Joly’s campaign has so far teetered on the brink of disaster.

The memory of the 2002 election may work against Mélenchon on polling day.

Over seven million voted to the left of the Socialists, leaving the far-right Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen in second place and allowing him to face off against Jacques Chirac in the second round.

Anxious to head off accusations that his candidacy might help Le Pen’s daughter Marine in 2012, Mélenchon has been at pains to present himself as an alternative for voters who may be attracted by her claim to represent the crisis-hit French working class.

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