I was initially going to post this as a comment on Facebook but decided to do so on AWAV instead. I saw Jean-Luc Mélenchon today, at a half-day forum at Le Monde HQ on “What foreign policy for France in 2017?,” co-sponsored by Le Monde and the European Council on Foreign Relations. The chef de file of La France Insoumise fielded questions for 45 minutes from Le Monde’s Arnaud Leparmentier—known for his social-liberal bent—and ECFR’s Manuel Lafont Rapnouil. I’ve seen JLM at rallies addressing the faithful and countless times on television, but this is the first time in a smaller forum—and before an audience that clearly did not include too many of his supporters.
He was vintage showman Mélenchon, trash-talking and blustering from the get go. Quel guignol. I openly laughed at three moments at least, though not because he was trying to be funny. This is not exactly a revelation but on form JLM is the mirror image of Marine Le Pen. The manner in which the two confront journalists asking pointed questions is identical. And on substance, there is more overlap between them than one may imagine. E.g. JLM’s ‘France First’ nationalism is striking, as is the attitude toward the European Union, which took up much of the back-and-forth. Now JLM does differentiate himself from MLP in that he is not, in principle, hostile to the construction of Europe and does not advocate a fast withdrawal from the euro. But these are nuances. His attitude toward the EU and Germany is that they must simply capitulate to French demands et c’est tout. So a president Mélenchon would go to Berlin—or, better yet, summon Angela Merkel to Paris—and announce that the EU treaties need to be revised. Or else. I was trying to imagine the scene: of Mélenchon, flanked by Alexis Corbière and Liêm Hoang-Ngoc, reading the riot act to Madame Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble. Ça prêtait à rire. When Leparmentier asked JLM who his allies would be in the European Council—i.e. what other EU member state would ally with France in its surenchère with Germany—and his “Plan B” in the event that Merkel & Co., along with most of the rest of the European Council, laughed in his face and told him he was off his rocker, he resorted to the time worn tactic of talking his way out of the rhetorical corner he had painted himself in to, of talking and talking and talking until the next question. It was likewise with a question on Russia, Crimea, and the inviolability of borders, in which he found himself ensnared in a total contradiction. So he just talked his way out of it.
One thing I’ll hand to JLM is that he is intellectually cultivated and no dummy. Ce n’est pas un con. And he does put on a good show. But he utterly lacks the temperament to be president of the French republic.
One new thing: JLM was asked to explain why Trump won the US election. It’s the first time I’ve heard JLM, for whom anti-Americanism is in his DNA, talk about internal US politics (entre autres, he’s steeped in the culture of the Latin American left, systematically referring the US as the “North Americans,” the “Yanquis,” etc). Though extolling Bernie Sanders—whose campaign he studied closely—he was nonetheless disconcertingly complaisant toward Trump’s campaign rhetoric and comprehending of why he won. I didn’t like that—as he is utterly wrong—but did find lucid one of his concluding remarks on this, which is that it is erroneous to think that the working class has always voted for the left. As JLM insisted, even when the PCF-led left was at the peak of its strength, at least 30% of the working class voted for the right. And these days that percentage is higher. And he explained why.
JLM is, as one knows, flying high in the polls at the moment, reaching 15 to 16%, which has made him the media star of the moment: e.g. making the cover of yesterday’s JDD and the subject of today’s Thomas Legrand édito politique and C dans l’air. And the rise is all at Benoît Hamon’s expense. That’s really too bad, as Hamon doesn’t deserve to be sinking in the way he is. I’m just a little dubious about JLM’s rising numbers, though, as I’d like to know where they’re coming from. Somehow it doesn’t make sense that there would be sizable defections from Hamon in his direction. There are anecdotes of Marine LP voters now tempted by JLM, which would be nice, but her numbers are showing no drop so far.
Despite my skepticism as to his present polling, it is clear that JLM is running a very good campaign and has modified both his rhetoric and image from that of 2012. He’s always known how to give a good speech—to put on a show—but has perfected his technique. The discourse is more populist and nationalist, and with a new ambiguity over immigration, which may not be to my taste but will be more so to the kind of voter attracted to his style of populism. In 2012 JLM was clearly the candidate of salaried public sector employees—with their special retirement regimes and a general status perceived by others as privileged, thus limiting his appeal—and with the Communist Party and unions in the front lines of his campaign; this time the PCF, CGT, and intérêts catégoriels of SNCF cheminots et al have been sidelined. At the March 18th rally at the République, their presence was discreet. And he has mastered the Internet and social media, notably in his use of YouTube.
The change in JLM’s strategy may be summed up in his campaign posters of 2012 and this year, seen below. In 2012, he resembled an Eastern European communist party apparatchik, as I wrote in my anti-JLM broadside back then. He was sinister looking; in one wall poster I saw at the time, someone had put a moustache on him, so he uncannily resembled you know who. In 2017 he’s Tonton Jean-Luc. La force tranquille à gauche de la gauche. We’ll see on April 23rd if it works for him.
UPDATE: Le Monde has an account of the April 3rd forum here. For the record, the other interventions were by Pouria Amirshai (for Benoît Hamon), Jérôme Rivière (for Marine Le Pen), Sylvie Goulard (for Emmanuel Macron), and Jean-Pierre Raffarin (for François Fillon).