Jean-Luc Mélenchon: the not-so-radical French presidential hopeful

The first round of the 2012 French presidential elections will be held on Sunday, April 22.

Just as Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) has Marine Le Pen (FN) chipping away at his votes, so François Hollande (PS) has the Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

This is the first presidential contest in many years where a Communist candidate has not run. Although Mélenchon is not a Communist, his Front de Gauche party includes PCF members whom he intends to put forward for the upcoming parliamentary elections (législatives).

Mélenchon was born in Tangier in 1951, when Morocco was still a French protectorate.  His father worked in postal services and his Spanish-born mother taught primary school. The family moved to France in 1962. Mélenchon told RMC’s Jean-Jacques Bourdin on April 16, 2012 that a secondary school teacher inspired him to adopt far-left politics and that he became a Trotskyite as a result. He added that in the 1970s, a number of activist university students looked to a career in politics in order to change France for the better.

Mélenchon taught school before entering politics. He was elected Deputy Mayor of Massy in Essonne (on the southern edge of Paris’s suburbs) in 1983 and stayed in that post until 1995. The same year he was first elected as Deputy Mayor, he also became a councillor for Massy, a post which he held until 2001.  In the interim, he was also a General Councillor of Essonne and Vice President of the General Council of Essonne.

With such a long tenure in office in Massy and Essonne, you would think that Massy’s Wikipedia page would have listed him amongst their ‘personalities’. But no.

In 1986, Mélenchon made history as the youngest Senator ever elected to office. He was 35 at the time. He served on and off until 2010.

In 2009, he was elected as an MEP.

Mélenchon told RMC’s Bourdin that he didn’t feel as if he had a country. That was his way of saying he is an Internationalist. I’m beginning to see a pattern with French people who have lived in former North African colonies. When I lived in France I knew some pied-noirs who had some rather fluid ideas on society and nationality which they successfully passed on to their children.

Another Frenchman with a similar outlook is Paris’s Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, born in Tunis to a French-Tunisian father and a French mother. Delanoë is approximately Mélenchon’s age  and moved to France around the same time.  He seems quite committed to absorbing diverse populations into Paris, a recent example of which were Tunisian refugees from the 2011 revolution who arrived in Lampedusa that year and made their way to the French capital. Delanoë immediately freed up public funds, initially €100k that April then €500k more in June, to put them up in hotels.

Bourdin asked Mélenchon if he would reduce the number of elected officials in France from the current 50,000. Mélenchon said no, explaining that each elected official represented ‘democracy for the people’ — the more, the better.

I don’t know how many times Mélenchon used the word ‘democracy’ in that interview, but I do not recall that he ever mentioned the word ‘republic’, which is telling. Even Socialist politicians speak of ‘republican values’. But, I digress.

Back to elected officials — who pays for them? The taxpayer — the ‘worker’ Mélenchon so often evokes in his emotional calls for a Sixth Republic for the people, ‘revolution’, seizing power and storming the Bastille. His supporters’ strident diatribes appear on several French fora. Anyone who criticises Mélenchon is stupid, useless, hysterical, lying or racist.

Imagine these Front de Gauche supporters in power at a national and wider regional level. We don’t need to wait that long though, because the centrist magazine Nouvel Observateur has already felt the force of their wrath. The magazine published an issue with Mélenchon on the cover and an in-depth look inside. The magazine’s director Laurent Joffrin noted that they received:

no fewer than four official communications that day, a flood of tweets and vengeful posts, a host of condemnations, not to mention some personal attacks the level of which did not elevate their authors.

In defense of the Nouvel Obs, he stated:

The information that we publish is thoroughly verified and all of us stand by it.

One of the hottest items in that issue was ‘Socialist-libertarian’ philosopher Michel Onfray’s editorial ‘Pourquoi je ne voterai pas Mélenchon’ (‘Why I will not be voting Mélenchon’), describing the candidate as a man:

who defends the Chinese occupation of Tibet, never stops praising the political merits of Hugo Chavez, a protector of anti-Semitic dictators, who affirms that Cuba is not a dictatorship … who castigates Christianity … and Buddhism as ‘good for nothing’ religions whilst sparing Judaism and Islam, [who has] serial errors of judgement at the very least.

In another article which appeared on April 16, the magazine took to task a French professor at University College London who wrote a highly complimentary editorial in the Guardian at the weekend. The Guardian piece came from Philippe Marlière, Professor of French and European Politics. He said:

Mélenchon’s rise has nothing to do with “1970s-style politics and nostalgia”, but is linked instead to his resolute take on the current capitalist crisis. He tells audiences that the austerity policies implemented across Europe are not only unfair but also counterproductive (even the Financial Times agrees). Mélenchon’s debating skills serve his cause, but he is also a lettered pedagogue: a dignified politician who has never participated in vulgar reality shows. What is more, Mélenchon is a French republican and a socialist, not a “far-left” or a fringe politician. He spent 30 years in the Socialist party unsuccessfully arguing that it should be a force at the service of ordinary workers, and he was a cabinet minister in Lionel Jospin’s government.

I don’t know how Professor Marlière arrived at ‘lettered pedagogue’. Teaching qualification, more like. Mélenchon’s ministerial position between 2000 and 2002 was Minister of Vocational Education. As for ‘debating skills’, I did not hear them in his RMC interview. And ‘dignified’ or ‘republican’? Hmm.

Antoni Mivani, an anti-capitalist who supports the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) candidate Philippe Poutou, wrote a well-researched critique of Mélenchon’s positions (also available in PDF) and concluded that, for all his bluster, Mélenchon isn’t so radical after all. Mélenchon intends to work more with shareholders, business owners and large companies than actual workers. Mivani notes that there is no ‘third way’ — Mélenchon’s way — negotiating between existing political and commercial institutions towards a worker-oriented polity. Only a complete restructuring of the French political system and dismantling of capitalism would get the job done. Excerpts:

The experience of 1981 [Mitterand’s first year as president] showed at least one thing. In capitalism, a Keynesian relaunch can’t resolve a crisis, it will only make it worse. Yet, this is the same fable that Mélenchon is [offering us] today … When the PS and PCF assumed power, they took the same social and democratic measures which Mélenchon is advocating …  But, very quickly, the economic situation [in France] deteriorated: the country saw a rapid flight of capital, commercial and budgetary debt slipped further, inflation stayed high, the franc had to be devalued three times in order to make us competitive with Germany … [p. 17]

In accepting a ministerial position [in the Jospin government] … do we need to be reminded that Jospin privatised more than Juppé [his predecessor] had, that the 35-hour work week served principally to make workers regressively flexible in ways advantageous to management … Mélenchon has never expressed the slightest regret for allying himself with that type of politics. [p. 17]

… Front de Gauche elected officials participate in Socialist Party-dominated regional, county and local councils … which vote on [a] budget, meaning, majority politics … even capitalist politics: grants to private enterprise … public-private partnerships, grants to private schools … [p. 18]

Mélenchon, totally opposed to a general strike, called for a referendum on the subject. Quite simply, the Front de Gauche’s function is to channel [workers’] struggles through existing institutions. [p. 20]

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: more classic leftism but with added bluster.

3 comments for “Jean-Luc Mélenchon: the not-so-radical French presidential hopeful

  1. johnnyrvf
    April 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    As the first round polling day becomes closer friends and aquaintances are divulging who they are going to vote for, a surprising number ( well to me anyway ) are going for La Pen, simply because they view the huge immigration numbers versus those of that number of immigrants from outside of the EU ( and from certain recent eastern members ) that actually give to La France rather than take as too much to bear.
    Normally the great majority of French people I have met do not in any way like right wing politics as memories of what happened in the last century are still very strong, however the very recent attacks in Toulouse and Montauban have had quite an impact.
    The whole construct of the EU has always been a French idea and ideal, originating, so I believe in the early part of the last century after the great war and Europe has always been for the benefit of France, however being as the French populace are much more politically informed and active and as they know much more about the fiscal situations of Greece, Spain and Italy I think this is going to be an interesting election, even if there is not much on offer candidate wise.

    • April 20, 2012 at 8:04 am

      Thanks, johnnyrvf, for the analysis!

      Interesting about the move towards MLP. French media have been saying that the Montauban-Toulouse would make no difference to people’s vote. I think they are trying to keep the lid on the pressure cooker, if you see what I mean. France has changed a lot in the last 10 years, especially in the provincial cities.

      I take your point on the French and Europe. What amazes me is that they are still so in love with Germany in this regard. It’s a bit bizarre given the Second World War. I had a conversation with a French friend in 1999 who, despite what her mother’s family went through at the hands of Germans in the war, said, ‘Germany will help us build a united Europe — it will be wonderful!’

      There is another aspect to this which is that today’s French are so attached to the idea of a welfare state (even if they are not on benefits). That will be a difficult mindset to break, especially with a) guilt-ridden bobos [bourgeois bohemians — note for readers] and b) new arrivals bringing their families with them. Welfare, it seems, has developed from a safety net into an accepted lifestyle. (It’s the same here and in the US, by the way.)

      I heard that it will be raining for the next several days in France, except in God’s Country (Cote d’Azur). When that happens in the UK and the US, many lefties stay at home. Conservatives will still go out to vote. Let’s hope the weather is nice and wet! 🙂

      (Another message to follow — Marine Le Pen’s RMC interview.)

  2. April 20, 2012 at 8:31 am

    A few words about Jean-Jacques Bourdin’s interview of MLP (RMC):

    Interestingly, JJB said immediately afterward that there would be no more discussion of politics. 🙄 I bet the switchboard lit up with hundreds of pro-MLP callers. (It was pretty evident after his interview of Hollande yesterday that JJB is a PS lapdog. He also regularly says, ‘I don’t want to talk about Marine Le Pen anymore. I’m fed up with talking about her.’)

    Anyway, to the interview. It’s a shame that she is a Le Pen, otherwise, in many (not all) respects she would be a credible third-party alternative (much more than Bayrou).

    On her economic plan — deemed to be unworkable — she said that she would rather try and fail than remain in the grip of the banks and Europe.

    On Europe — she would offer a referendum and respect the result (if it were to remain in the EU).

    On the euro — she would scrap it and replace it with a ‘new franc’.

    On criminality — she would bring back the death penalty. She thinks that Breivik should be put to death.

    On immigration — she would ‘politely and with dignity’ tell prospective immigrants not to come. ‘I would say to them, “We’re very sorry, but France has nothing to offer you — we are on the brink of collapse and need to take care of the people we have”.’

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