An unlikely creature has become the symbol of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s latest bid for the French presidency. On a flawless Sunday afternoon on March 20, a large papier-mâché tortoise was tugged along the two-kilometer stretch from the Bastille in central Paris to the Place de la République, where the seventy-year-old MP addressed tens of thousands of supporters.
The tortoise may not be the most galvanizing of political metaphors. But it aptly captures the uphill battle that France’s leading left-wing politician has had to fight since entering the presidential race last summer. The 2022 election cycle, Mélenchon’s third consecutive attempt at the presidency, has been a perfect storm of complications for the French left.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic has dampened political enthusiasm and mobilization, bringing to an abrupt halt the cycle of organizing that dominated French politics in the years before the health crisis. In an election that many party machines have written off as a foregone victory for the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, the Greens, Socialists, and Communists are each running their own independent candidacies — forcing Mélenchon to contend with a packed left-wing field.
Key figures in Macron’s government, meanwhile, have spent much of the last two years corseting the news cycle around subjects of Islam, immigration, and security. This mood was perfectly crystallized by the time of a March 22 conference held by the far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles. At a convention center in southern Paris, government figures like Marlène Schiappa, subminister for citizenship, vaunted the administration’s security clampdown and efforts at streamlining deportations. They shared the microphone with the entire gamut of the French right, from Jordan Bardella, president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, to Éric Zemmour, the far-right polemicist whose candidacy is serving to lay the groundwork for post-election right-wing alliance.
To top it all off, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has added a degree of credence to government calls for national unity. Highly active on the international scene since the onset of the crisis earlier this winter, Macron has sought to position himself as a leader for a time of global instability. With a touch of solemnity, Macron announced his candidacy in an open letter to the regional press on March 4. Since then, the incumbent has kept largely above the fray, citing the international situation as a reason to avoid the campaign trail, delegating the stump to ministers and surrogates.
To judge by recent studies, Macron is in a strong position, benefiting from low voter enthusiasm and a scattered field of candidates to the left and right. Although he is now embroiled in a pre-election scandal over revelations of the sums of money spent in contracts with private consultancies like McKinsey, most first-round polling has Macron at around the 30 percent mark, several points above his position when he first won the presidency in 2017.
Wars are also rarely kind on attempts to sidestep Manichaean thinking. With Europe’s old east-west divide reimposing itself in new form, Mélenchon has found himself in the crosshairs over his long-held stance that France should leave the NATO alliance, seek nonalignment, and strategically pivot toward the Global South. These positions, alongside past statements that cut against the grain of conventional thinking on Russia, have made him into the ideal straw man for critics of the Left’s supposed tendency for pro-Putin apologetics.
As far as the war in Ukraine is concerned, the main sticking point between Mélenchon and the other candidates of the Left and center concerns the extent of military aid and sanctions.
Such criticisms come not just from Macron but also from the weaker center-left candidates: Socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo — her party’s standard-bearer in this race (polling around 2 percent) — as well as Green contender Yannick Jadot (6 percent). They each cast Mélenchon’s opposition to Western military aid as an extension of his foot-dragging over condemning the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
For Mélenchon, who has made a point of referring to the Russian president as an “autocrat” instead of a “dictator,” these distinctions are part of the need to lay the groundwork for an eventual mediation. In order to drive a wedge between the Russian people and the state, as well as avoid the self-inflicted wounds of a full-scale economic divorce, he argues that sanctions need to pointedly target the economic and political and economic elite around Vladimir Putin.
“I am nonaligned, but not just since yesterday. I am old enough to have been against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians and against the American war in Vietnam,” Mélenchon said in France and the War, a televised series of live, one-on-one interviews with the main eight candidates aired on March 14. “When the Americans said they wanted to extend NATO right up to Russia, I warned, ‘danger.’ When it’s Putin that crossed the frontier, he’s the one committing the intolerable act.”
“For years, he’s warned, ‘This could end badly,’” Véronique, who has supported Mélenchon since 2012, said of the candidate’s position on Russia before his speech at the Place de la République. “We know that he’s not pro-Putin. At the end of the day, I find that what’s happening in Ukraine is being exploited. What’s happening to the Ukrainian people is horrifying. It’s also quite timely — just as the COVID pandemic seems to be ending and there’s nothing more to distract us. Before, it was, ‘Don’t complain, you’re still alive,’ and now it’s, ‘Don’t complain, there could be a war.”’
But the ongoing trial of Mélenchon is above all hypocritical. A nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France has long displayed a certain opportunistic flexibility regarding Russia. For the far right, this has translated into an open ideological affinity for and direct ties with the Russian autocrat. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, for example, has borrowed as much as €9 million from Russian banks.
Closer to the center of French foreign policy thinking is the desire to leverage an eventual loosening of east-west tensions into enhanced (and French-led) European power and strategic autonomy. Since 2017, the line coming from Macron, for example, was about the need to establish — with and through Russia — a new “security architecture” in Europe. If it can at times veer toward a certain myopia regarding Putin, Mélenchon’s position on Russia is really a variation on a general theme, the prevailing “Gaullism” in French foreign policy thinking, as one La France Insoumise adviser put it.
The newfound unity against Putinism is also undercut by the leniency accorded to autocrats and regimes closely aligned with the West. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example, have been treated most indulgently by Macron’s government and his center-left predecessor, François Hollande. Both were eager to make the two states into major clients for French arms exports, which have been used to devastating effect by the Gulf monarchies in their war in Yemen. Only after much public protest did Hollande cancel the sale of naval vessels to Putin after the latter’s 2014 occupation of Crimea, military hardware eventually redirected to Egypt.
Tortoises on the March
In this context, it’s not particularly surprising that the attacks against Mélenchon have been largely ineffective. Since late February, in fact, he has soared in the polls, confirming his position at the front of the left-wing field of candidates, within possible striking distance of making it to the second-round runoff against Macron. What has Mélenchon’s supporters hopeful is that the bar for accessing the second round could be significantly lower than in 2017, and may be pierced with a strong turnout of abstentionists. A March 30 Elabe poll has Mélenchon at 15.5 percent in the first round, behind Le Pen at 21 percent and Macron at 28 percent.
“It mostly reflects our coherence,” the France Insoumise aide, who requested anonymity, said of Mélenchon’s position on Russia and the candidate’s surge amid the crisis. “Obviously, our position has adapted. Starting with the moment when Russia became the overtly aggressive power, it’s impossible to exclude responses and forms of pressure like economic sanctions. But the position that we’ve always had is that we need to be able to have a serious dialogue with Russia.”
Despite all the headwinds then, France Insoumise, running this year under the slogan of L’Union Populaire, is gaining traction. Its tortoise strategy has been to pierce through the news cycle with a series of big-ticket policy offers that promise a rupture from a political scene lurching to the right. Events, Mélenchon supporters also like to point out, are finally catching up with the candidate’s program: the abandonment of budgetary orthodoxy during the COVID crisis and the massive amounts of funding that European leaders are preparing to devote to defense spending have shown the lie behind financial austerity. In short, the resources for enhanced public services and salary increases exist — what’s lacking is the political will.
Urgent, Long-Term Change
Mélenchon’s primary target is Macron, and the contrast in policy terms couldn’t be starker. Laying out an eventual second-term program in a four-hour-long press conference on March 17, Macron plans to raise the retirement age to sixty-five, pursue lower taxes on businesses and inheritance, and further tighten access to welfare programs. Mélenchon’s landmark proposals are a sixty-year retirement age, a hike in the minimum wage to €1,400 per month after taxes, a guaranteed income for students, massive investments in public services, and a program of “ecological planning” on the lines of a French Green New Deal.
Delphine, a teacher at a professional high school in Paris, has long abstained from voting, all while working as an activist in a fringe far-left party. “Mélenchon has clarified his message,” she told Jacobin. “The urgent thing right now is to break with Macron and end the destruction of public services. He’s privatizing every sector: transportation, education, and so on.”
Like similar marches in his earlier campaigns, the March 20 rally was specifically billed as the “March for the Sixth Republic.” The deeper cause of the rot in the French political landscape, Mélenchon argues, is the democratic deficit at the heart of the president-centric Fifth Republic instituted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Upon taking office, Mélenchon promises to call a constituent assembly that would bring together citizen-delegates who will be tasked with drafting the constitution of a new republic, to be approved by referendum.
“One of the priorities for everyone here is the constituent assembly,” Daniel, a veteran of the gilets jaunes protests and retired truck driver, said. “We want to reappropriate political life.”
Mélenchon has seen last-minute surges before, in his past presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2017. His supporters relish the thought of seeing their champion face off against Macron in the head-to-head televised debate before the second round — if, that is, he can outpace Marine Le Pen in the next two weeks. The least that can be said is that the veteran politician has surely confirmed his force’s role as power broker in any post-election reconfiguration of the French left.
“We can almost say that he’s in first place,” Daniel commented, speaking of the enthusiasm back in his hometown of Orval, where he volunteers for door-to-door campaigning. This is probably wishful thinking, given how strong Macron’s hold on French political life really is. But Mélenchon’s tortoise-like war of position — rebuilding a radical alternative to centrist triangulation and conservative culture war — still has some fight in it.