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Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the thug at the head of the new French left – POLITICO

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MARSEILLE, France — Sitting in a café in Marseille, the incendiary leader of the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, grimaced over a glass of strawberry milk to the applause of his supporters him as France’s next potential prime minister.

The outspoken anti-capitalist pulled off his trademark raincoat and launched into a diatribe against profit-driven scientific research and a capitalism that breeds “chaos and greed”.

Mélenchon was launching his party’s parliamentary campaign in the rugged Mediterranean city that is often seen as a symbol of the battle between the people and Parisian elites.

Far-left brandon Jean-Luc Mélenchon launches a parliamentary campaign in Marseille | Clea Caulcutt for POLITICO

“People have understood here that to improve their lives, everything had to change,” the leader of the France Insoumise party told a handful of supporters.

“They need to stop electing puppet legislators who raise their hands like pets every time the government asks them to make budget cuts,” he added.

A stalwart of the left and a seasoned tactician, Mélenchon has pulled off the biggest political coup since newcomer Emmanuel Macron snatched the French presidency five years ago.

From A close third in April’s presidential election, Mélenchon bounced back trying to lead the left into the fray in June’s legislative elections after pushing other left-wing parties to join forces behind him. In the process, they created a new alliance and agreed on a radical platform to “disobey” EU treaties, leave NATO and end nuclear power.

With his searing takeover of the left and his promises to lead the charge against Macron, Mélenchon has restored his reputation as a shrewd strategist and eclipsed far-right leader Marine Le Pen despite her record result in the presidential election. In the second round in April, Macron obtained 58% of the vote against 42% for Le Pen.

On the heels of Mélenchon urging his supporters to campaign for the “third round of the presidential election”, some early projections now suggest his left-wing alliance could get the biggest share of the vote in the first round, ahead of the two Macron’s coalition and the far right. However, such an outcome is unlikely to result in a majority in parliament for the left alliance as support for the far left is concentrated in some constituencies and Macron’s centrist coalition are expected to attract right-wing and far-right voters in the second round of voting.

Mélenchon has nonetheless presented himself as France’s next prime minister if his party wins a majority – a highly unlikely scenario that would force Macron into a cohabitation government, where the president and prime minister are from different parties.

With his radical rhetoric on capitalism and his gruff attitude, Mélenchon has also eclipsed Le Pen, who has kept a low profile since his third failed bid for the presidency.

“I am surprised at the importance that left-wing themes have taken on in public debate,” said Rémi Lefebvre, political scientist and expert on the French left.

“It is clear that we are witnessing a duel between Mélenchon and Macron, even if I doubt that it will last long. Mélenchon very skilfully personalized the legislative election,” he said.

The question now is whether the far right is in decline and whether Macron’s next term will be tainted by a face-off between his pro-business party and a radical and populist left led by Mélenchon who will not hesitate not stoking street protests and finding ways to block his agenda.

larger than life

Mélenchon is no stranger to controversy in France. Anti-American and anti-imperialist, the far-left leader is fascinated by Latin American strongmen such as Fidel Castro in Cuba or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Following a road trip with Chávez in 2012, Mélenchon wrote that “he had never seen such political fervor… Halfway through, I realized I was in tears.”

“He has a fascination for great people, for history and for Latin America. He is an intellectual and he found inspiration there. He will glean elements to bring back, ”said Lefevbre.

Mélenchon’s comments that Vladimir Putin “was going to fix the problem” in Syria in 2016 came back to haunt him. Until shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, Mélenchon defended Moscow’s position and said that Russia rightly felt threatened by NATO’s eastward expansion.

His temper tantrums also raised questions about his ability to lead. In 2018, Mélenchon shocked even his supporters when he yelled at a police officer during a search of his campaign headquarters over bogus job claims. In a widely circulated video, a crimson-faced Mélenchon is seen shouting “I am the Republic, I am a legislator” and “get out of the way”. A year later, a Paris court sentenced him to a three-month suspended prison sentence.

Mélenchon was also filmed mocking a journalist who spoke with a regional accent shortly after the aforementioned incident at his party headquarters. He is seen repeating the reporter’s accent and saying “So what does that mean?” before turning to the others and asking “Does anyone have a question in French?”

Several party members confirmed that his entourage developed strategies to contain his outbursts, but they also used them in what Mélenchon himself called the “sound and fury” strategy to attract attention.

A former adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, says those close to him admire and fear him.

“Ninety percent of the time Mélenchon is a brilliant speaker and a brilliant strategist, but 10 percent of the time he is crazy and paranoid,” he said.

“He’s a scale model of a charismatic dictator,” he added.

The signing of the left-wing accord between Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise party, the Greens, Socialists and Communists sent the old guard of the once powerful Socialist party into open rebellion.

Former party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis said a France led by Mélenchon would resemble “North Korea”, while former Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accused his party of tolerating “the hatred of the ‘state’ and to ‘tolerate authoritarian regimes’. by making a deal with him.

However, in a time of political defiance, Mélenchon’s improvised honesty and charisma clashed with the shrewdness of traditional career politicians and won many fans.

A formidable duelist on television sets, Mélenchon breaks the speeches – by barely touching his notes. He is anything but boring. On stage, he offers the romanticism of the 20sand the ideological battles of the century and the freshness of the 21stinnovation of the century. During the presidential campaign, the 70-year-old held immersive olfactory political rallies and used hologram technology to address multiple audiences at the same time.

It’s this savvy approach – as well as his conversion to hardline environmentalism – that appeals to a younger generation, with more than a third of 18-24 year olds voting for the far-left leader in the last election. At a France Unbowed rally in Marseille, many young supporters said his speeches got them hooked on politics.

“I became political while listening to Jean-Luc Mélenchon talk about redistribution and the need to boost low wages,” says student Guillaume Amodeo.

“He has a vision, can talk about so many topics and he really appeals to you,” he added.

Opportunistic believer

Mélenchon was born in Morocco under French control in 1951. Suffering from undiagnosed hearing difficulties, he says he was “on another planet” as a young boy and developed an ability to “read people’s faces and even minds of people”.

But it was his experience of moving to France in 1962 that shaped his political outlook, according to France Rebellious legislator Danièle Obono.

“He was from North Africa and there was a disconnect between who he was and how he was perceived…as a tanned foreigner, even though he was raised in a French environment,” she said .

“There was a culture shock that forged his character and his sense of injustice,” he added.

A former Trotskyist, Mélenchon joined the Socialists in 1976 and was briefly minister of vocational training in 2000. But he left the party in 2008, disappointed that his radical left politics had been ignored. Mélenchon quickly becomes the black beast of the Socialist Party, a “dead star” which he criticized at all times.

In 2016, he founded the France Insoumise party. In a display of his shrewd political instincts, Mélenchon was able to take advantage of the Socialists’ collapse after two historic defeats in the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections.

After a brief flirtation with Euroscepticism and populism at the start of La France insoumise, Mélenchon veered to the far left, distancing himself from the political debacle of the Socialist Party, while softening his position on the EU and immigration. .

“His convictions are not so stable,” said Georges Kuzmanovic, a former adviser who left La France insoumise.

“Like Marine Le Pen, he has a very changing campaign platform. I don’t know if he has changed deep down, but there is at least an element of political expediency,” he said.

But the move allowed him to siphon off more moderate voters from rival left-wing parties who saw him as their only chance to disrupt the showdown between Macron and Le Pen in the last presidential election.

While the far right is plagued by infighting between Le Pen and the rival Reconquest party led by former journalist Eric Zemmour, the united left has momentum behind it. Le Pen, after her third failed presidential bid, has indicated she will not run again.

Even though Mélenchon’s ambitions for a majority of seats in parliament seem far-fetched, his left-wing alliance could become the main opposition force in parliament, with 135 to 165 MPs, according to an OpinionWay poll.

As Macron and his newly appointed Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne push ahead with their controversial reforms to the state pension system and unemployment benefits, they will find Mélenchon ambushed at every turn.

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