France politics: Is Mélenchon really a threat to Macron?

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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In the wake of the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections the two largest mainstream parties, the Parti socialiste (PS) on the centre left and Les Républicains on the centre right, were left unsure of how to counter-attack. Instead of fighting each other or the government, the two parties turned in on themselves. This created a void which La France insoumise, a far-left party led by charismatic firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, sought to fill. However, following months of vociferous opposition to Mr Macron's flagship labour law, La France insoumise has failed to achieve significant influence, and is now struggling to make its voice heard.

Mr Mélenchon, a one-time member of the PS, previously led the Front de gauche (another far-left party) before founding La France insoumise in 2016. His politics belongs to a hard left that has withered and splintered in recent years, and his political formations have breathed new life into the old-fashioned Parti communiste français (PCF) and its entourage by targeting young and working-class voters. Although Mr Mélenchon obtained a respectable 11% in the 2012 election, his movement remained fairly marginal and only really came to prominence in 2017, when France's party system was shaken up in a spectacular and unprecedented way.

The first important development was the nomination of left-winger Benoît Hamon as the PS presidential candidate. The centre left's selection of a candidate who was not much different from Mr Mélenchon politically, but who lacked Mr Mélenchon's charisma and rhetorical skills, left voters who tend towards the left of the party wondering whether Mr Mélenchon could be a better bet. Mr Hamon's campaign nose-dived as many on the left of the PS began to prefer La France insoumise, which ticked up in the opinion polls accordingly.

The next opportunity for Mr Mélenchon came with the rise of Emmanuel Macron and his capture of the centre ground, leading to the near-demise of the PS and giving Mr Mélenchon a real chance to become the representative of left-wing politics in France. Mr Mélenchon fell only 2 percentage points short of qualifying for the second round of the presidential election (see chart), and La France insoumise won an unprecedented 17 seats in the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) in the subsequent parliamentary election.

With Mr Macron convincing various members of the PS and Les Républicains to join his party, and in some cases even his government, a vacancy emerged for a party to offer genuine opposition. The far-right Front national (FN), which was distracted by expenses scandals and internal rivalries in the wake of the 2017 elections, was not able to capitalise on this opportunity. Instead, La France insoumise started to become the most visible and vocal alternative to the government.

Opposition to the labour law came to nothing

Mr Mélenchon's politics focuses on opposition to globalisation (including the EU) and defence of trade unions and the working class. He also champions not repaying France's public debt, and defends the idea of stronger diplomatic relationships with (authoritarian) Russia and (socialist) Venezuela. This positioning meant that he was perfectly placed to spearhead the resistance to Mr Macron's labour law reform, which sought to liberalise the French labour market. Mr Mélenchon and his team made a lot of noise about this last year in parliament, in the media and on the streets. For several months, as their rivals were all still seemingly reeling from the shock of the elections, La France insoumise seemed to be the only party taking the fight to the Macron administration.

The big problem for Mr Mélenchon was that he fought, loudly and publicly, a battle that he did not come close to winning. Mr Macron was able to push his reforms through relatively easily, with minimal opposition within parliament and tacit support from a public ready for change. Mr Mélenchon could mobilise a respectable crowd for a rally, but was not able to bring the country to a halt in opposition to the reforms.

Furthermore, although 17 deputies is an impressive achievement for a political movement that had previously been marginal, it remains wholly insufficient to effect real change in parliament. Other parties, including the Greens and the various emerging PS factions, have refused to align themselves with Mr Mélenchon's controversial politics.

Shifts in strategy show dwindling ambition

This has led to a second shift in strategy. La France insoumise's initial tactic-to be the most vocal opponent of Mr Macron-proved an exercise in futility, serving little real purpose beyond grandstanding. The party's second tactic-to bolster its numbers through forming alliances-has not borne fruit. La France insoumise's aim now is to broaden its reach in terms of policies and electoral appeal.

In terms of policies, the party has shown its intention to do more than just oppose Mr Macron's agenda by launching its own initiatives. Given Mr Macron's current predominance on the political scene, La France insoumise stands little chance of setting the agenda and even less chance of pushing through any legislation that is not supported by the government. But at least such initiatives-on issues such as abolishing nuclear power-allow the party to do something and to have its voice heard.

At the same time, the party looks keen to carry on attacking Mr Macron on issues where it can gain some ground. One such example is the forthcoming reform to university admissions, allowing public universities to recruit selectively for the first time. Mr Mélenchon has been quick to mobilise on student campuses across France in defence of the right of anyone who obtains their baccalaureate (the French secondary school diploma) to go to university. La France insoumise is unlikely to make much of a dent in the government's handling of this issue, but this policy allows Mr Mélenchon the opportunity to win over the youth vote. Those affected by this reform are also those who are coming of age politically, and Mr Mélenchon wants to win their support before the PS has chance to recover. Attracting the youth vote now would rejuvenate his party and provide it with a stronger electoral base for the future.

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