Could Mélenchon endanger Hollande’s first-round victory?

It’s easy to forget in the battle royale between the two champions of the center-left (François Hollande of the Parti socialiste) and the center-right (incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy of the latest right-wing Gaullist incarnation, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) of the French presidential election, the first round ballot gives voters a choice of nine additional candidates.

From among those nine, the most well-known are Front national candidate Marine Le Pen, who is polling in third place and whose father finished second in the 2002 presidential election, and centrist Mouvement démocrate candidate François Bayrou, who finished a close third in the 2007 presidential election.  Perhaps equally well-known is former French foreign minister and prime minister Dominique de Villepin, whose presidential campaign in 2012 has yet to catch the imagination of the French electorate.

But creeping up slowly in the polls — with currently just under 10% — is the candidate of the Front de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Front de Gauche is an umbrella group of various leftist political parties, the most prominent of which is the once-strong but now-atrophied Parti communiste français. 

If Sarkozy, who is currently running hard to the right in the first round, is able to co-opt Le Pen’s appeal to right-wing voters (as he did successfully in 2007 against her father), he could pull off a surprise first-round victory against Hollande.  With polls showing Hollande’s first-round victory margin much smaller than his double-digit second-round margin, every vote that Mélenchon earns is a vote that could otherwise go to Hollande.  A first-round victory does not guarantee victory in the second — for example, Lionel Jospin finished more than two percentage points ahead of Jacques Chirac in the first round of the 1995 presidential election but lost by more than five percentage points in the second round.

Mélenchon was once a strident voice of the left within the Parti socialiste, serving as Minister of Vocational Education from 2000 to 2002, the final two years of Lionel Jospin’s government. Notably, Mélenchon was trounced at the party’s 1997 election for the position of First Secretary — a position that Hollande won and would hold for the next 11 years.  After the French left’s debacle in the 2002 elections, Mélenchon abandoned the party altogether for a new leftist project.

Mélenchon has run an unmistakably leftist campaign — in contrast to the moderate tones of the very centrist Hollande campaign (which has nonetheless proposed a 75% tax on annual earnings in excess of €1 million):

  • Although at one time a European integrationist, Mélenchon opposed the EU constitution in 2005 and opposes the EU’s current approach to fiscal policy.
  • A minimum wage of €1,700, with a maximum wage too.
  • A return of the retirement age to 60 — Sarkozy and his political allies raised the age successfully to 62 in 2010.
And, perhaps most radically, Mélenchon would end the French presidency itself:
It’s a kind of grotesque five-year renewable monarchy. Modern democracies have to be parliamentary democracies, with a suitable ingredient of proportionality that allows people to feel represented. If I am elected, I would call together a constituent assembly to create a parliamentary regime, and I would be the last president of the Fifth Republic, and I would take the keys of the palace and throw them in the River Seine.
It’s the kind of fantasy leftist platform that only a quixotic candidacy can carry off, but it may be shaving just a few more voters away.  As the French electorate intensifies its attention on Hollande as the next president — France’s first president from the left since François Mitterrand left office in 1995 — he will take care not to present himself as outside the mainstream, notwithstanding his support for a millionaire’s tax.
He has reserved his harshest criticism for Le Pen, which, if successful, would ironically have the effect of consolidating votes in the Sarkozy camp, thereby compounding Hollande’s Mélenchon’s melancholia.  Last week, the Le Pen-Mélenchon sniping hit a fever pitch — he called her a “bat,” a “pickled reactionary” and an “odious presence.” In response, Le Pen pere challenged Mélenchon to a debate in which he would “remove [Melenchon’s] underpants.”  In the latest escalation on Sunday, Mélenchon attacked both of the Le Pens for being “up to their elbows in blood” and drunk with the legacy of French Algeria in their obsession with immigration to France.
For now, the Le Pen-Mélenchon dustup remains a sideshow to the main event.  But if the criticisms of Le Pen break through, and if Sarkozy can shave off votes from Le Pen from conservative voters and if Mélenchon can shave off votes from Hollande, in turn, from leftist voters, the story of the first round might once again be that of a divided left allowing an opening for a candidate who can consolidate the right.

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