Jean-Luc Mélanchon will not be President of the Republic next month. In fact, he won’t make it past Sunday’s first round of the election. The final opinion polls show the Front de gauche candidate finishing fourth, just behind the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But it is Mélenchon who has come closest to setting this otherwise dreary campaign alight, with his revivalist campaign rallies and his incendiary attacks on international finance. He has cast a long shadow which could extend well beyond the now-likely installation of François Hollande as president on 15 May.
Mélanchon likes to delight his supporters by crying ‘We are very dangerous!’ (in English) at his campaign rallies, especially when British journalists are around. It’s a deliberate mocking riposte to the moderate Hollande, who during his fence-mending visit to London in February told financial journalists, ‘I’m not dangerous.’
Mélanchon revels in stories that his strong performance in the campaign is sending waves of fear through trading floors in London and New York. Not even the dumbest City or Wall Street trader actually thinks Mélenchon is going to win. But there are jitters (though not much more than that) about the influence he could exert on a Hollande government, particularly if the Front de gauche does well on Sunday.
Markets hate uncertainty above all, but there’s nothing vague about Mélenchon’s promises to ‘put an end to speculation’ (he uses a phrase that sounds like ‘ring the neck of’ in French) and ‘to take back power over finance’. He proposes forcing big French banks to buy up government debt, wants to fully separate retail and investment banking and has suggested that the European Central Bank ease Europe’s debt crisis by lending to national governments at a flat 1% rate of interest . He promises an immediate increase in the minimum wage from 1,400 to 1,700 euros a month, and a massive programme of public spending costing 120 billion euros, paid for by tax rises and other revenue raising measures totalling 192 billion euros, including a 100% tax on earnings about 360,000 euro a year (some of his forecasts look questionable, but he has some room for manoeuvre there).
His model for tackling the debt crisis is not Greece’s ‘capitulation’ to the financial markets, but south America (‘or Russia, if you like,’ he says with a wry smile), where Argentina and Ecuador ‘threw out the IMF’ and simply refused to pay some of their debts. ‘We have one weapon of deterrence,’ he says. ‘Who is going to allow to the second power on the continent to collapse? Who?’
For all its undoubted faults, Mélenchon’s platform at least has a coherence the others lack. It is the most credible far-left programme put before a European electorate for at least a generation.
How much influence all this would have over Hollande’s presidency depends not only on how well Mélenchon does on Sunday, but also on the performance of the Front de gauche in June’s parliamentary elections. Mélenchon has (sort of) ruled out joining a Socialist-led government under Hollande, but he hasn’t slammed the door completely shut.
And the man who stormed out the PS four years ago still retains a surprising faith in the socialist credentials of his erstwhile comrade. ‘Francois Hollande will be forced to come back to my approach. We only have to wait,’ he says. When France is attacked by the markets, ‘I bet he will make the choice to resist.’