Why French left-wingers are turning to Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French far left Parti de Gauche and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election delivers a speech as he holds a political rally in Rennes, France, March 26, 2017
Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French far left Parti de Gauche and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election delivers a speech as he holds a political rally in Rennes, France, March 26, 2017 Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Buoyed up by 15 percent of voter intentions, five points ahead of embattled Socialist  Benoît Hamon, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has emerged as the de-facto left presidential candidate for French voters, at less than four weeks to go before the first round. Mélenchon supporters explain why they're rooting for the veteran political rebel.


In a micro eco-village in central Paris, reputed for its organic farming and homeless shelter, supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon feel most at home.

"This place offers a different kind of future," says Alice Forge, a 32-year old writer and artist.

The place? Les Grands Voisins or Friendly Neighbours, which attracts "anti-growth" activists, foreigners and general utopian pacifists.

"The programme of La France Insoumise [Defiant France - Mélenchon's political movement] is also about putting ecology, urban agriculture, solidarity and associations first. It's helping people in distress socially, so I think it's a good place to talk about that."

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The hard-left candidate was the first out of the 11 candidates to outline his policies for redressing France more than a year ago.

"He has a detailed programme of 125 pages, unlike Emmanuel Macron where half of his programme is just his photo," Alice says.

At the heart of Mélenchon's message is human progress.

The leader of La France Insoumise illustrated this point in the last presidential TV debate, where he spoke out against the plight of immigrants.

"People don't immigrate for pleasure, immigration is a forced exile," he told his four challengers: Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Benoît Hamon and François Fillon.

"Many of us come from an immigrant background, myself included."

Immigrant background

The 65-year old was born in Tangiers, in Morocco, and says he grew up with the smell of the sea, blissful walks along the beach and with a view of the Gibraltar Straits: an intersection between Europe and north Africa.

When he was 11 he and his family were forced to leave at the onset of decolonisation. A painful experience, which he says allows him to empathise with those less fortunate than himself.

"Mélenchon wants just one thing. He just wants the immigrants to stay in their country and have the same dignity as us," explains Mirsad Hadjer, an energy practitioner.

"His idea is to stop making wars to foreign countries and increasing the reasons for people to leave," reckons for her part Alice.

"The problem is that Europe exports cheap chicken to Africa that is cheaper than the home produce. So how can they live? They can't, because our European chicken is cheaper," argues Mirsad.

Mirsad Hadjer and Alice Forge, two Jean-Luc Mélenchon supporters, stand at the Grands Voisins, micro eco-village in Paris' 14th district, March 29 2017
Mirsad Hadjer and Alice Forge, two Jean-Luc Mélenchon supporters, stand at the Grands Voisins, micro eco-village in Paris' 14th district, March 29 2017 Christina Okello for RFI

Save the planet

The 51-year-old Bosnian, a Muslim converted to Buddhism, says it is Mélenchon's emphasis on the environment that most appeals to him.

"We live in a world of limited resources, we can't go on producing wrecklessly. I'm voting Mélenchon because I want to save our planet."

Mélenchon's views on the environment are among the most forthright in the whole campaign.

He wants France to go 100 percent renewable energy, scrap nuclear power and he even wants to classify water and the air we breathe as a common good.

His economic policies are also ambitious, with a pledge to inject 100 billion euros into the economy to stimulate growth, irrespective of fears this will increase France's budget deficit.

Can he reach the deciding round?

"Everybody knows now that the debt is not the problem, it can be resolved very quickly. If we relaunch the economy, there will be many workers, more taxes. And Mélenchon has said that in four or three years' time, this 100 billion euros will come back in the state, so there's no problem," insists Mirsad.

The problem critics argue--is that even with this surge in popularity behind him, at just 15 percent, Mélenchon is unlikely to qualify for the 7 May runoff.

The latest polls put independent centrist Macron in the lead in the second round, ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Macron on Wednesday received the support of former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, increasing the internal woes of the Socialist Party.

So far Mélenchon has refused to rally behind Hamon to combine their votes to at least 25 percent.

"His immediate objective would be to overtake François Fillon to become the third man," explains political analyst Jim Shields.

"The third man in a presidential election can play a key role, if we think back to 2007 when it was [centrist] François Bayrou," he points out. "Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal at the time were courting Bayrou, so it is an important position to hold. If Mélenchon were to get to be third man that would be a real achievement and I think it also has to be François Fillon's biggest, biggest nightmare."

Squeaky clean image

Back in the eco-village of Mélenchon die-hards, Alice says the candidate's squeaky clean image appeals to voters even beyond the French left.

"Mélenchon is completely unstained by all this corruption that we're into and he's proposing to abolish this kind of presidential monarchy that led to all this corruption."

The firebrand candidate has called for the French constitution to be torn up and rewritten, and a new Sixth Republic established in its place.

"We have institutions that are not controlled, the parliament which is not controlled, and that's how Fillon was able to employ his family," reckons Alice. "But it's not that he employed his wife, it's that she didn't work at all! Then at the same time he asks people in hospitals to make sacrifices. That's not possible!"

Power to the people

Under Mélenchon, any politician with so much as a whiff of suspicion about their integrity would be revoked on the spot; with citizens given the right to sack MPs.

"Mélenchon is the only one that wants to bring back power to the people, we don't have no more power," says Mirsad. "We're hit by financial problems, ecological problems. Where are we going? We don't know. I hope we have a way with Mélenchon to rebalance all this, but mostly for the people, and not just some people."

After five years of disappointment with incumbent President François Hollande’s administration, many are desperate for change and prepared to believe that Mélenchon can offer more than a mere pipe dream.

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