Jean-Luc Melenchon, from outsider to leader of French left

·4-min read
Jean-Luc Melenchon has capitalised as other forces on the French left collapsed (AFP/CHRISTOPHE SIMON) (CHRISTOPHE SIMON)

Divisive but charismatic, French hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has gone from angrily quitting France's Socialist Party to standing at the head of a rare alliance of the historically fragmented left.

The 70-year-old former senator, who describes himself as "eruptive" for his passionate outbursts, has made his France Unbowed (LFI) movement the main left alternative both to President Emmanuel Macron and his defeated presidential run-off rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

This week, Melenchon signed an alliance deal with the Greens, Communists and Socialists that puts him firmly in the driving seat on the left for June parliamentary polls.

And he is eyeing the job of prime minister if the left comes out on top in the elections, in what would a prickly "cohabitation" with the centrist Macron.

Melenchon's brand of anti-establishment politics has profited as the traditionally dominant Socialists (PS) collapsed following Francois Hollande's widely-loathed 2012-17 presidency and the rise of the often polarising Macron.

For some in the PS, the party of former president Francois Mitterrand who ruled France from 1981-1995, it has been a bitter pill to swallow.

Party heavyweights have been reduced to fuming from the sidelines, with former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve quitting the PS after it approved the deal and Hollande making clear his discontent.

"It's always rebels who help give birth to the future," Melenchon said before the first round of the presidential vote that saw him come a close third.

- 'Walk your own path' -

Born in Morocco, Melenchon joined the Socialist Party in 1976 at 25 after diving into Trotskyism as a student, going on to become the youngest member of France's Senate in 1986.

He remains an admirer of Mitterrand, claiming that the "old man" told him shortly before his death to "never give in, walk your own path".

After serving as vocational education minister under Socialist premier Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002, Melenchon broke with party leaders in 2005 to successfully oppose a proposed European Union constitution in a referendum vote.

At odds with then-party chief Hollande, he quit three years later to form his own movement, the Left Party, saying "our country needs another voice on the left".

In a gradual catch-up that prompted Melenchon to liken himself to a "sagacious tortoise", he scored 11 percent in 2012's presidential vote, 19.5 in 2017 and almost 22 this year -- far ahead of PS candidate Anne Hidalgo's humiliating score of below two percent.

His rise has been accompanied by a gradual change in style.

"My way of being is a signal. I'm sound and fury, just like my era... I'm headstrong," Melenchon said in 2010.

But he sought in the 2022 election to moderate his style and reach out beyond his traditional far-left base, eschewing his trademark Chairman Mao-style jacket for snappy suits and ties.

But he says he is "grateful" when opponents dub him a populist, declaring "I'm not with the people, I am from the people."

- Cost of living -

The war in Ukraine has worsened a cost-of-living crisis for French working people that saw far-right boss Le Pen focus on purchasing power in the election campaign, rather than her traditional anti-immigrant message.

Opposition to Macron -- widely perceived as a "president of the rich" -- had already brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in sometimes-violent "yellow vest" protests triggered by a fuel tax rise, before the coronavirus pandemic came to overshadow the second half of his first term.

Melenchon hopes to capitalise on still-simmering resentment for the legislative polls, vowing to cut the statutory retirement age to 60 years from 62, while Macron has announced plans to raise it to 65.

If the left secures enough votes to bounce Macron into naming him prime minister, Melenchon would also immediately boost the minimum wage to a monthly 1,400 euros ($1,481) from around 1,250 now, and cap energy and food prices.

He even secured agreement through gritted teeth from the other parties in his alliance to breach European Union rules on debt and deficits if needed to get their programme through.

"I've never felt as ready to govern as now," Melenchon told AFP last year.

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