On the third attempt, a third defeat. After his 2012 and 2017 bids, Jean-Luc Mélenchon again missed out on the runoff for France’s presidential election. But this time around, the result had something of the appearance of a victory. While polls right up till election day credited him with 15-17 percent support, the final result was 22 percent. Mélenchon finished 400,000 votes behind Marine Le Pen (23.1 percent) where 600,000 votes had separated them in 2017.
Mélenchon didn’t prevent the expected duel between Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen. Yet there was some cause for satisfaction. His 7,714,000 votes was an increase of 700,000 on 2017 — even though last time he had three contenders on the Left and this time there were five. This was also the highest score for any radical-left candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958.
As in 2017, Mélenchon came first place among young people. He was backed by one-third of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds, but only 9 percent of voters over seventy. It was voters over sixty-five who put Macron into the second round — a candidate who wants to raise the retirement age for everyone under sixty-five.
The geography of the vote was also telling: Mélenchon scored strongly in big cities, including Nantes (33 percent), Lyon (31 percent), Marseille (31 percent), and Paris (30 percent): he also came top in the capital’s 1st and 11th arrondissements, hardly the most proletarian. He made a breakthrough in Paris’s eastern suburbs, which have a large population of workers of immigrant background. He topped 50 percent in several such cities, as well as in France’s overseas territories. This can be seen as a success for defense of cultural “creolization,” his explicit fight against Islamophobia and his denunciation of police violence. On these points, Mélenchon has adopted a more open line than in 2017, when he had essentially targeted the “fâchés pas fachos” — the “angry not fascist” working-class France tempted by Le Pen’s National Rally.
Mélenchon is now the undisputed leader of the French left, with his rivals in a miserable state. The Socialist Party (PS) — from 1981 to 2017 one of France’s two alternating parties of government, providing two presidents — took just 1.7 percent. It had already slumped to 6.4 percent in 2017, devastated by the five years under PS president François Hollande, who pursued a neoliberal policy with Macron as his economy minister. Many imagined that 2022 PS candidate Anne Hidalgo could hardly do worse, but she did. The Greens (4.6 percent) also fell short of the 5 percent threshold for public reimbursement of their campaign costs.
While the environmental crisis is French voters’ second-highest-ranked concern (behind the cost of living), the Green candidate did not benefit. The “ecological” vote instead went largely to Mélenchon, whose program was rated most convincing by many NGOs and environmental associations. Several figures from the climate marches also endorsed Mélenchon’s program L’avenir en commun. As for the Communist Party (PCF), which supported Mélenchon in 2012 and 2017, but this time presented its own candidate on a “patriotic” line, it obtained 800,000 votes (2.3 percent). Even half of its votes would have been enough to get Mélenchon into the runoff. Finally, the two far-left candidates, Nathalie Arthaud (0.6 percent) and Philippe Poutou (0.8 percent) — like Mélenchon each standing for the third time — hit historic low scores.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Mélenchon benefited from a certain “pragmatic vote.” Faced with the threat of the far right (a potential winner in the runoff), many supporters of the Communists, Socialists, Greens, and the two far-left candidates, preferred to vote for Mélenchon to try and eliminate Le Pen. But the “pragmatic vote” is an adaptable tool, which the far right also knows how to wield. Many of Pétainist polemicist Éric Zemmour’s supporters ultimately opted for Le Pen. Zemmour, at one point polling 18 percent, eventually scored only 7 percent, while she rose from 12 to 23 percent.
The “pragmatic vote” also played a role on the center-right: the conservative Republicans and their candidate Valérie Pécresse — heirs to Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy — took just 4.8 percent. The bourgeois free-marketeer right massively shifted to Macron, who governed for five years with two prime ministers from the Right, with a fiscal and social policy serving bourgeois interests.
But Mélenchon’s 22 percent is not only the result of the “pragmatic vote.” Already, in 2017, his campaign was judged the most successful by the French as a whole. The 2022 campaign was of the same vintage. Mélenchon returned with the elements that explained his strength in 2017: a large “march for the Sixth Republic” brought together about a hundred thousand people on March 20. On April 5, he held a rally where he appeared in hologram form in twelve cities at once.
Each week, his teams organized forty rallies throughout France, and ninety in the last week. In the rallies where Mélenchon was present, he gathered thousands of people, and several tens of thousands in Paris, Marseille, and Toulouse; the best-attended among all twelve candidates. Mélenchon was also ever-present on social networks: on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as in 2017, but now also on Twitch and TikTok, with the #AlloMélenchon show. Across all of them, Mélenchon’s videos were the most watched. Similarly, his television interventions were the most followed, along with Zemmour’s. If we add to this the fact that the candidate, the program, and the logo are the same as in 2017, we can say that Mélenchon mounted a successful campaign, and that this success owed to the same ingredients as five years ago.
However, some small adjustments were made. Starting with the program: the “plan B” for leaving the European Union was dropped in favor of a more consensual position of “disobeying” EU treaties; and the ecological aspect of the program was also considerably strengthened, with particular attention to the pandemic.
France Insoumise also became the Union Populaire. This was accompanied by a new structure: Mélenchon created a “Parliament of the Union Populaire,” bringing together three hundred personalities. Half are militants, cadres, and elected representatives of France Insoumise. But the other half are people who don’t belong to the Union Populaire: trade unionists, artists, writers, community leaders, trade unionists, people from other political parties, environmental, feminist, and anti-racist activists. This “Parliament” is proof of Mélenchon’s capacity to open up and rally new forces and new people. But the title is misleading — its members are not elected, but appointed by Mélenchon.
For the second time in a row, the Left is absent from the runoff. This hadn’t happened before: each previous occasion the Left was absent from the second round (in 1969 and 2002), it returned five years later. This time, the effacement of the Left is more enduring — and worrying. However, while the total vote for left-wing candidates in 2017 was 27 percent, on Sunday it was 32 percent, up 2 million votes.
This is a rebuttal of all who said that the Left is finished. But a system long divided between Left and Right is now tripolar: a far-right pole behind Le Pen, a liberal-authoritarian bourgeois one behind Macron, and a popular, left-ecological one behind Mélenchon. This latter will be absent in the second round on April 24, but it is paradoxically at the center of attention, with Macron and Le Pen both trying to draw in Mélenchon’s electorate.
Macron claims that “our lives are worth more than their profits” (repeating an alter-globalist slogan). On Sunday night, he paraphrased Mélenchon to insist — despite his own record — that there is an urgent need to rebuild the welfare state, defend “workers and the precarious,” and begin the “ecological turn.” Le Pen meanwhile called on left-wing voters to back her and prevent the “social destruction” planned by the “president of the rich.” Mélenchon and his electorate will, indeed, be the arbiter of the second round.
How will Mélenchon behave in the next few weeks, now that he reigns over the Left? Five years ago, when the TV news announced the results at 8 PM on election night, he took over two hours to speak, appearing stunned and refusing to admit the official figures until midnight. His hesitation and call for an internal consultation on whether to back Macron for the runoff were widely criticized. This time, he spoke quickly and hammered home the point that “not a single vote should go to Le Pen.” However, he did not explicitly call for a Macron vote. He knows that part of his electorate is tempted by abstention or voting blank, and believes that Macron is a pyromaniac firefighter, who deliberately boosts the far right in order to pose as a “barrier” against it on election day.
The French Left’s Future
Two questions now arise for Mélenchon: Will he remain at the head of his movement? Will he open it up to a great “union of the left” in view of June’s legislative elections? The future of France Insoumise, and more than that, the future of France’s left, depends on the choices he makes in coming days.
Was this Mélenchon’s last presidential campaign? Most commentators assert this, and he himself has sometimes said so. But he also remarked, in Marseille on March 27, that he would “probably do other campaigns” if the situation required it. On Monday, his right-hand man, Adrien Quatennens MP, told the media: “This man is not replaceable in the political landscape. Men are not pawns that can be switched.” His other lieutenant, Manuel Bompard, added: “Anything can happen.”
Certainly, Mélenchon has never liked sharing power. In the organizations he founded in recent years, he has always managed to prevent pluralism and internal contestation. With 22 percent of the vote, the third man in French politics hardly seems willing and able to step down. He has no natural successor. Mélenchon will be seventy-six when the next presidential election comes around (although Joe Biden was elected aged seventy-eight). Mélenchon is never stronger than in the position of the “wise old man” which he has adopted during this campaign. So, we can’t rule out him running again.
One last crucial question: What will Mélenchon do ahead of the parliamentary elections on June 10 and 17 (and in view of the next five years)? Back in 2017, already in the lead on the Left, Mélenchon refused any alliance with other left-wing forces, including the Communists, who had supported him in the presidential elections. France Insoumise elected seventeen MPs (out of 577). Many on the Left criticized him for going it alone and “crushing” the rest of the Left. This time, will he take the opposite direction: offering the rest the chance to join him in a common political home?
This new union of the Left would have a common program (negotiated on the basis of Mélenchon’s current one), the leadership would be collegial and the nominations for parliamentary seats would be distributed according to the balance of power within the Left. Mélenchon has a historic opportunity to lead this union, and in the last two weeks he has already begun talks with the Communists and the Greens. The next month will tell us whether such a union can work.