Mélenchon, a Fiery Leftist, Has Late Surge in French Election

LE HAVRE, France — Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading left-wing candidate in France’s upcoming presidential election, once likened himself to one of nature’s slowest animals.

“Trust a wise and electoral tortoise like me,” he said at a rally in January. “Slow and steady wins the race.” And, he added, mockingly: “I’ve already tired a few hares.”

Now, nearly two weeks before the first round of voting on April 10, Mr. Mélenchon — a veteran politician who launched his third presidential bid 17 months ago — is hoping that Aesop’s fable about the tortoise who came from behind proves prescient.

For months, Mr. Mélenchon and other candidates jostled in the polls below President Emmanuel Macron, the centrist incumbent, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, hoping to disrupt their widely expected rematch.

But Mr. Mélenchon, 70, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed movement, has surged recently in voter surveys. He is now comfortably in third place with about 14 percent, largely ahead of his competitors on the left and within a few points of Ms. Le Pen, whose fierce competition with Éric Zemmour, an anti-immigrant pundit, has eaten into her support.

A final victory for Mr. Mélenchon still seems remote. But a left-wing candidate reaching the runoff for the first time since 2012 would be stunning, especially in a race that was long-dominated by right-wing talking points on security, immigration and national identity.

“I’m starting to think it might be possible,” said Jérôme Brossard, 68, a retiree who was attending a small Mélenchon rally on a recent evening in Le Havre, a working-class port city on France’s northern coast.

About 200 people gathered at a community center for the event, where walls were lined with posters reading “Another World Is Possible.” Some waved France Unbowed flags or wore stickers of the candidate’s face on their chest.

Mr. Brossard said friends and family had recently shown interest in Mr. Mélenchon, raising his hopes and, for the first time ever, prompting him to paste campaign posters around town.

Mr. Mélenchon, a former Trotskyist and longtime member of the Socialist party who left in 2008 after accusing it of veering to the center, is a perennial but divisive figure in France’s notoriously fractious left-wing politics.

A fiery, skilled orator with a reputation for irascibility — “I’m the Republic!” he once shouted at a police officer raiding his party’s headquarters in 2018 — Mr. Mélenchon has also staked out positions on contentious issues like secularism, race and France’s colonial history that have put him at odds with those on the left who support a stricter model of a secular, colorblind republic.

But now, as the global economy strains to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine pushes up the prices of energy and essential goods, Mr. Mélenchon’s unabashedly left-wing platform, including a promise to impose price controls on some basic necessities, is resonating.

“That’s his favored terrain,” said Manuel Cervera-Marzal, a sociologist at the University of Liège who has written a book analyzing the France Unbowed movement.

“He is doing an old-school, left-wing campaign that puts issues of inequality and purchasing power at its heart,” he said, adding that Mr. Mélenchon had softened his image of a “slightly bad-tempered” and “erratic” politician while preserving his “populist” strategy of pitting the people against the elite.

Voters most attracted to Mr. Mélenchon — who skew young, unemployed and working-class — also make up their minds later than most, which helps explain why Mr. Mélenchon’s polling numbers have risen as the finish line approaches, according to Mr. Cervera-Marzal.

But that is also the electorate most likely to stay home on election day, he warned.

“It’s a crucial issue,” he said. “The lower abstention is, the higher Jean-Luc Mélenchon will go.”

Mr. Mélenchon still faces many obstacles. Other left-wing leaders have resisted rallying to his campaign, castigating him for his pro-Russian comments before the invasion of Ukraine and saying his fiery nature made him unfit to govern.

“We need to have a useful president, not just a useful vote,” François Hollande, France’s Socialist president from 2012 to 2017, told France Inter radio this month, as he attacked Mr. Mélenchon’s anti-NATO stance and his willingness to opt out of European Union rules.

In 2017, Mr. Mélenchon missed the second round of voting by a mere percentage point, a bitter disappointment that his team is eager not to repeat. Mr. Mélenchon’s campaign has held hundreds of small but packed rallies and sent dozens of caravans to tour the country to attract disillusioned voters.

“It’s time for the final all-out offensive!” said Adrien Quatennens, a France Unbowed lawmaker, at the rally in Le Havre. “It’s a vote that is worth a thousand strikes, a thousand protests!”

Turnout was low in Le Havre for last year’s regional elections, but the city, with its dock workers and powerful trade unions, is still fertile ground for Mr. Mélenchon’s campaign. A third of the city voted for him in 2017.

Sitting in the back row at the rally, Catherine Gaucher, 51, said she “had a bit of sympathy for the Greens at the beginning.”

“But the platform they advance, no, it’s Macronism,” she said, referring to Mr. Macron, who is widely depicted on the left as the “president of the rich.

By contrast, Mr. Mélenchon has vowed to lower the legal retirement age to 60 from 62; introduce a monthly minimum wage of 1,400 euros, or about $1,500; and increase taxes on the rich, including by reintroducing a wealth tax that Mr. Macron repealed.

He is also determined to replace the country’s Constitution, which gives the president a strong upper hand, with a new parliamentary system. He has promised to massively invest in green energy and the fight against sexism and violence against women, and to overhaul France’s police force, in response to the #MeToo and anti-police-violence protests of recent years.

Even Mr. Mélenchon’s most vocal critics acknowledge his thoroughness. Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, the head of a powerful association of France’s biggest companies and one of Mr. Mélenchon’s biggest opponents, said last month that Mr. Mélenchon was “ready to govern,” with a “very well crafted” and “interesting” platform.

Clémence Guetté, who is part of the team in charge of that platform, said that the Covid-19 pandemic — during which Mr. Macron pivoted from pro-market disrupter to unapologetic state spender to prop up France’s economy — had helped legitimize Mr. Mélenchon’s own generous spending plans.

“The mind-set is not the same,” she said.

But Mr. Mélenchon is still hard-pressed to attract left-wing voters who currently support other candidates.

“Many of them are wondering about the efficiency of their vote,” Mr. Quatennens said in an interview, adding that voters wanted to avoid a rematch between Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron.

At a massive demonstration last week in Paris, Mr. Mélenchon appealed directly to left-wing sympathizers. “Each person is personally responsible for the outcome of the presidential election, because each person has the key to the second round,” he said in his speech. “Do not hide behind the differences between leaders and labels.”

But the pool of left-wing voters to pull from is small.

One study by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a progressive think-tank, found that about 40 percent of those currently supporting the Socialist, Green or Communist candidates may eventually vote for Mr. Mélenchon. But those candidates are polling so low that the additional support may not push him into the runoff.

Still, Sarah Maury-Lascoux, 51, a literature teacher at the rally in Le Havre, was confident. The French left needs to overcome its divisions, she said, and rally behind “the only candidate who manages to take off.”

Constant Méheutreported from Le Havre and Aurelien Breedenfrom Paris.

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