Melenchon Is Playing a Dangerous Game
The first round of voting in the French presidential election has eliminated all but two candidates: the incumbent, centrist, pro-European Emmanuel Macron, and his challenger, far-right, nationalist Marine Le Pen. But in France and around the world, the eyes of the most astute observers of French politics are on the man who failed to qualify: the far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. As Dr Alexander Cook, a history professor at the Australian National University and a local expert on French politics, observed on the tv channel SBS: “the world now waits for what Melenchon will say.”
It’s easy to see why. Melenchon has a large segment of voters behind him. The French presidential election happens in two rounds: in the first round, many candidates compete, but if none of them gets half the votes, a second round is held with only the two candidates with the most votes in the first round. Even though he was eliminated in the first round, Melenchon clinched 22% of the vote, giving him third-place, barely less than the second-place candidate, Marine Le Pen, who got 23%. And, whilst the most far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour, who got 7% of the vote in the first round, has explicitly urged his supporters to vote for Le Pen, Melenchon has declined to back Macron to defeat the far-right, saying only that “not one vote must go to Madame Le Pen.”
But Melenchon’s refusal to endorse Macron may end up handing the presidency to Madame Le Pen. With 28% of the vote in the first round, Macron’s lead over Le Pen is a small one, and it’s easy to see Le Pen overcoming it with the backing of Zemmour’s supporters. Yes, Melenchon has told his supporters not to vote for Le Pen, but that is far from a ringing endorsement of Macron. Even if his supporters don’t vote for Le Pen (they’re unlikely to vote for someone so far-right, anyway), she may still become president so long as many of them stay home or cast blank votes on election day.
Macron, for his part, understands the importance of winning over Melenchon’s supporters. A few days ago, he campaigned in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, and Melenchon’s fiefdom. During his rally, Macron touted his environmental policies, even using Melenchon’s own slogan of “environmental planification,” an umbrella term for active government intervention to combat climate change. Meanwhile, some of Macron’s lieutenants walked-back his plan to reform pensions, in particular, his plan to raise the retirement age to 65 – a plan Macron has stubbornly defended for five years – hinting it could be amended, watered-down, or simply put to a vote in a referendum.
But what is Melenchon playing at? Surely a far-left leader would be horrified at the prospect of the far-right Le Pen becoming president, and would do anything, including explicitly endorsing Macron, to prevent this from happening?
Surely a far-left leader would do anything to prevent the far-right Le Pen from becoming president?
Melenchon, however, is withholding his support from Macron because he hopes to become prime minister in the upcoming parliamentary election, officially announcing his ambitions yesterday. This is unusual. As I wrote in a previous article, France is an extremely centralized country. The president usually holds all the executive power, and the parliamentary election, held just a month after the presidential one, usually mirrors its result. Thus, someone who wins the presidency decisively can expect his or her party to go on to win control of parliament decisively, with the prime minister (the person who commands the confidence of the majority of MPs) being one of his deputies. This time, however, could be different. Enthusiasm for both Macron and Le Pen are at historic lows. Polls suggest that, whoever the victor in the second round is, the victory will be a narrow one, which will not necessarily translate into a majority in the parliamentary election. Melenchon hopes the president’s party will fail to garner a parliamentary majority, and that his party will manage to win a large portion of the seats and partner with other smaller parties like the centre-left Parti Socialiste, and the green party, EELV. Melenchon could then use this to get himself chosen as prime minister. In this scenario – a prime minister hailing from a different party as the president – the former will no longer be the latter’s deputy, but his or her equal, controlling domestic policy and relegating the president to the realms of defense and foreign affairs.
But why would this ambition prompt him to withhold his support from Macron at the second round of the presidential election? The most likely reason is that he fears explicitly endorsing Macron would taint him with moderation, would be viewed as a betrayal by his far-left supporters, whose votes he will need to realize his ambitions to be prime minister. Also, if Le Pen ends up winning the presidency, this will likely throw Macron’s party into disarray, possibly enabling Melenchon to pick up more votes at the parliamentary election by claiming to be the only alternative to the far-right.
Melenchon likely fears explicitly endorsing Macron would taint him with moderation, would be viewed as a betrayal by his far-left supporters.
But Melenchon is playing with fire. His equivocation may well end up giving the presidency to Marine Le Pen, who will likely severely damage France as a liberal democracy at home and abroad, and whose far-right ideology will make her much harder for Melenchon to work with than the centrist Macron. And there’s the very real possibility that, once elected president, a crypto-fascist like Le Pen would not accept constitutional restraints, would not accept sharing power with the far-left she so despises. Writing for the French newspaper Le Monde, Franck Johannes noted after analyzing Le Pen’s platform that “in large part, it would run into the wall of the Constitution” and concluded that it cannot be enacted without what some legal experts would call “a coup.” Le Pen has also repeatedly said she would use (one would say abuse) one of the president’s discretionary powers, the ability to call for a referendum, to pass laws without going through Parliament. In short, she could attempt to neuter the legislature by governing through the use of populist plebiscites.
Melenchon may pose as a leftist purist who refuses to compromise his principles, may make much of his purported “authenticity.” But in hedging like this in hopes of becoming prime minister, Melenchon embodies the very thing people hate most about typical politicians – the willingness to put his personal ambitions over the good of the nation. One hopes his schemes won’t end up blowing up in his face – and taking the country down with them.