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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012, 8:51 am

French Left Rallies Around Election Campaign

By Bhaskar Sunkara

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"We're back—the France of revolution!"

Speaking to tens of thousands last weekend, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's words weren't expected to resonate in this year's French presidential election. Yet the energy around his campaign has galvanized the Left in the lead-up to Sunday's first round of voting.  

Of course, the France of popular imagination has always been a revolutionary country. The storming of the Bastille, the Paris Commune, May ‘68 all color outside perceptions. A less savory reality, however, simmers beneath the surface. For years, the far-right National Front has been the country's third party. By combining economic populism with immigrant bashing, their candidate, Marine Le Pen, was well-positioned to match the success of Netherland's Freedom Party and others within the surging European right. The combination of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopularity and a bland Socialist Party opposition seemed to destine as much.  

But then came Mélenchon. The unassuming former Socialist minister broke ranks to help lead the Left Front, a grouping linchpinned by the French Communist Party and other disaffected socialists. Recent polls put them at over 16 percent, a remarkable rise few saw coming.


Though 2010 witnessed mass strikes in response to planned pension reforms, since then the French anti-austerity movement has lagged behind others in Europe, despite low public confidence in Sarkozy.

Le Pen rushed in to fill the void. She opposes the euro and attacks big banks, seeking to rally voters around a new nationalism—one with little room for immigrants, especially France’s large Muslim population.

Mélenchon has taken on the National Front directly, even on these sensitive issues. Highlighting the plight of the undocumented, he attacked attempts to divide workers on the basis of immigration status. 

The people who work in this country and who do not have papers must have papers, because once they have papers they can protect themselves, they can defend themselves, they can unionize, they can go to the police station when they have a problem, whereas today they're forced to hide, and we have in a certain sense a sort of internal offshoring. Giving papers to workers without papers means protecting the social legislation of our country.

Speaking to In These Times, University College London professor Philippe Marlière explored the Left Front’s strategy: 

Mélenchon is targeting Le Pen's policies and designates the National Front as the 'major enemy’ because he thinks that there cannot be any left-wing revival in France and in Europe if a strong extreme right can keep blurring the political lines between left and right by developing freely a narrative which concentrates on 'race' and so-called 'clashes of civilization' between South and North or between Islam and the 'West.’

It is only by recreating a clear divide between left and right on socioeconomic issues that the Left will be able to reconnect with the working and lower middle-class. His radical reformist views on capitalism and the current crisis have enabled him to do just that: he has been attracting young and working-class voters and stopping Le Pen from setting the agenda on immigration and law-and-order issues.

Yet the coalition is a threat to more than the Right. Mélenchon’s platform is bold and openly radical. He dismisses Socialist candidate François Hollande as “bourgeois” and proposes a shorter work week, higher minimum wage, a jobs program, selective nationalizations, and a 100 percent tax on earnings over 300,000 euros.

Hollande has been forced leftward—rhetorically, at least.

But even with Left Front gains, the center-left Socialist Party is expected to oust President Sarkozy and implement a milder version of his austerity package. They have, after all, pledged to balance the national budget by 2017.

Debates rage within the French left about what posture to adopt towards this prospective Socialist government. Some want to wield influence from within, believing that a strong first round showing may lead to an offer of a powerful cabinet position for the young coalition.

Others would oppose such an alliance, which would potentially see the Left Front be a junior partner in an austerity-minded administration. Mélenchon, for his part, has rejected such a possibility.

Still, it remains to be seen whether enthusiasm around Mélenchon will transition into an effective opposition movement, his stated intention. "We are not here to fight for one candidate, but for a cause, bigger than us."

And many mainstream observers are taking him seriously. The ever reasonable David Frum sees Mélenchon as a demagogue, as threatening as Le Pen. Even a Financial Times headline worries that "France faces revival of radical left."

Perhaps the international left should look seriously at the Left Front, as well.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.

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