What’s the story?

DESPITE narrowly failing to qualify for the second round of voting in the French presidential election last week, Jean-Luc Mélenchon remains the focus of much attention in the run-up to a final confrontation between President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

The candidate for France Insoumise/Union Populaire exceeded his most optimistic polling and took 22% of the vote, but was nevertheless edged out by Le Pen (23.4%) – a result not due to the superior popularity of the far-right, but divisions within the left. As the French newspaper Le Monde pointed out, had the Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel not run for president, the 800,000 votes he secured might instead have gone to Mélenchon and put him into the runoff.

With that dream deferred, all eyes have turned to the influence which may yet be wielded by Mélenchon’s supporters-turned-kingmakers, who now find themselves facing unlikely appeals from both the Le Pen and Macron campaigns.

Who is Jean-Luc Mélenchon?

Entering the French Senate in 1986 as its youngest-ever member at the age of 35 before serving as a minister under Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government, Mélenchon has since established himself as a pitiless critic of neoliberalism and one of the most visible and successful left-wing politicians in Europe.

While the media beyond France is prone to comparing him to figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, both of those candidates mounted their insurgent campaigns from within dominant, mainstream parties; Mélenchon, by contrast, split with the once-mighty Socialist Party – whose candidate Anne Higaldo took just 1.7% in the first round of voting last week – in 2008, and has since left them in the dust.

His 2022 platform – his third consecutive run at the French presidency – advocates a ‘social emergency law’, which would increase the minimum wage to €1,400 a month and cap salary differences between workers and CEOs at one to 20, as well as the seizure of all inheritances greater than €12 million, a progressive corporate tax, the reduction of the retirement age of 62 to 60, and permanent contracts for 800,000 temporary public sector workers.

Which way will Mélenchon supporters go?

Regardless of who emerges as president, French politics is now inarguably tripolar. Neither the far right under Le Pen nor the far left under Mélenchon can be dismissed as mere fringes, and have proven themselves more than ever as major constituencies to be reckoned with, flanking a dwindling and embattled centre represented - for now - by Macron.

As it is generally agreed that those who voted for Le Pen in the first round are unlikely to be swayed to Macron in the second, many are wondering what the more powerful motivating factor will be for Mélenchon supporters – their fear of the far-right, or their disdain for the arch-centrist Macron?

Despite much alarmism over the possibility of frustrated anti-establishment voters switching from the far-left to the far-right, it should be remembered that any Mélenchon supporters turning to Le Pen in the second round would be lending their support to the polar opposite of everything Mélenchon stands for.

The more pertinent question is whether Mélenchon's young, radical base will hold their collective nose and bail out Macron, or simply stay home. As one Mélenchon-supporting Parisian student told the news network France 24: "Macron or Le Pen - we're screwed in any case."

If Macron does prevail, he will only have done so through the gift of the French radical left. Whether or not the resolutely neoliberal president offers them anything in exchange for that salvation, it is unlikely Mélenchon supporters will let Macron forget that his government only survived thanks to them.