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The Surprising Rise of the Far Left

With just ten days until the French election, hard-left firebrand Mélenchon has shaken up the race.
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Though he is her ideological opposite, the vision of France’s future presented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon sounds sometimes very similar to that offered by Marine Le Pen. This should worry her.

© REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

For months, French voters have been told they are likely facing a stark choice in May: maintain the liberal democratic order with a France at the center of the European Union, or turn over the keys to a far-right leader who promises to leave the euro, break up the EU, and have France go it alone. These two sides are represented by the pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen.

But in the last weeks of the campaign, a third possibility has emerged. Jean-Luc Mélenchon gives voice to the same anti-EU, anti-globalization instincts that Le Pen has tapped into. But instead of a far-right France going it alone, it would be a far-left France.

Mélenchon, who enjoys the support of the Communists, is now polling at 18 percent, above the center-left and center-right candidates Benoît Hamon (9 percent) and François Fillon (17 percent). He is nipping at the heels of the “insurgent” candidates Macron and Le Pen, who each stand at 24 percent, according to polling released earlier this week by Kantar Sofres. The top two candidates in the election’s first round on April 23 will go head-to-head in a second round on May 7.

Tear it all Down

Mélenchon is no stranger to French politics. He has run for president before, in 2012, when his anti-globalization message garnered him 11 percent of the vote in the first round. Then, as now, he promised a wholesale transformation of the French state – a dismantling of the Fifth Republic with its powerful presidency and the creation of a new, socialist Sixth Republic. He would push for a complete transformation of the EU. And if he cannot get it, he will invite the French people to vote in a referendum to leave the EU.

Throughout the campaign, it was assumed that this was not Mélenchon’s year. After all, the French left was in a shambles. Outgoing President François Hollande’s cratering poll numbers meant that the Socialist Party candidate Hamon had no chance. Nor, it was assumed, had the far-left Mélenchon.

But then came the debates – and Le Pen saw her message being co-opted.

Mélenchon stole her thunder by also saying he was open to calling a referendum on EU membership, and then went even further by calling for an end to the Fifth Republic. “I think the Fifth Republic is working just fine,” Le Pen scoffed. Suddenly, she was looking less bold than her challenger – and boldness is what her followers want. For those at home looking for dramatic change, a new option was put before them.

Who’s Losing Support?

The Mélenchon surge is likely coming from three directions.

First, he is attracting Le Pen voters who want a radical break with the established order but are worried about the Front National’s history of fascism and anti-semitism. There are also those voters who had planned to vote for Le Pen in the first round as a protest vote, and then turn against her in the second round. Some of them may know think that opting for Mélenchon would send an even stronger message, but they have no intention of voting for him in the second round either.

Then there are those who may be gravitating from Macron to Mélenchon after ceasing to view the former as the true “insurgent” candidate. There have been concerns that Macron peaked too early. Now, Mélenchon is riding a wave at what political analysts know is exactly the right time. Enthusiasm for Macron may be slipping as people come to view him as the “establishment” candidate.

Finally, there are likely a significant number of voters who are abandoning Hamon in the final stretch as it becomes clear the Socialist Party candidate has no chance. Hamon gave a lackluster performance in both of the debates, and core Socialist voters may be gravitating to the other candidate of the Left.

Anybody’s Game

What was looking like a certain Macron-Le Pen final match has now been thrown open. Mélenchon still has a long way to go to make up the six-point difference between himself and the frontrunners.

But the important thing is that Mélenchon is moving up while the front-runners are stagnating, and at this stage of the race that is significant. Were half of Hamon voters to move to Mélenchon, he would make up the difference and enter the second round. The big question then is: who would he be facing off against?

All might have depended on a third presidential debate scheduled for April 20, but that has been called off (reportedly at Mélenchon’s urging). That gives Hamon no chance for a comeback performance to woo back the Socialist supporters.

If he were to face off against Macron, the dynamics would likely be similar to what would have been seen in a Macron-Le Pen contest. A combined alliance of the right and center would rally behind Macron to defeat the far-left candidate, in the same way that the left and center would rally to defeat the far-right. Polls say Macron would handily win this contest.

Two Extremists?

But what happens if it ends in a Mélenchon-Le Pen contest? It would be a truly incredible situation, pitting the far left against the far right and guaranteeing France an extremist leader in any event – and a leader hostile to the EU, though the chances of a referendum are probably smaller under Mélenchon than under Le Pen.

According to polls, Mélenchon would beat Le Pen but not by a comfortable margin. Would the other candidates rally around a far-left contender? Could France’s institutions and businesses bring themselves to endorse Mélenchon? Or would everyone keep quiet, possibly resulting in the lowest second-round turnout in the history of the French Republic?

The prospect of this scenario has spooked markets. As news of Mélenchon bounce spread this week, the yield difference between French and German ten-year bonds widened three basis points, and a measure of two-week euro volatility against the dollar spiked to over 10 percent, the highest in more than three months.

What may bring them comfort is that Mélenchon experienced a similar bump just before the 2012 election, before falling back down. In the end, his 11 percent was under what polls had predicted.