1:08pm

Fri April 20, 2012
Europe

In France, Fiery Leftist Candidate Strikes A Nerve

Originally published on Fri April 20, 2012 5:06 pm

The French go to the polls Sunday to choose among 10 candidates for president, and opinion surveys suggest the outcome will be a runoff between the two main figures, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

But one of the big surprises of the race so far has been the resurgence of the radical left, whose candidate has gone from obscurity to becoming the most dynamic figure of the campaign.

Jean-Luc Melenchon's public rallies have easily rivaled those of Sarkozy and Hollande. A recent gathering at Paris' Bastille monument drew an estimated 100,000 fervent Melenchon supporters, who listened to him in rapt attention.

"They're wondering what is this phenomenon that fills this huge plaza," says Melenchon. "We call it the citizens' revolution, and it has just begun."

Melenchon proposes a popular insurrection to create a new French republic — one that will massively boost the minimum wage and make it illegal for profitable companies to lay off workers.

He slices up French bankers and businessmen with his sharp wit, and has declared solidarity with the debt-ridden Greek people while denouncing what he calls the oppression of Europe by financial markets.

The Bastille crowd waved red flags and booed references to the rich. Among them were retirees Claude and Annie Kossura, who traveled several hours from eastern France to hear Melenchon.

"He represents values like sharing that have all but disappeared today in the face of the myth of money," says Claude Kossura. "Citizens don't feel part of their nation anymore — we belong to globalized markets and speculators. That has to change."

Helped along by the economic crisis, Melenchon has tapped into working-class anger over wage inequality, the decline of French industry, and global capitalism gone wild.

Sprinkle in a little anti-immigrant rhetoric, and this is the same platform that has boosted another fringe candidate — far-right leader Marine Le Pen. In the latest opinion polls, Melenchon and Le Pen are now battling it out for third place behind Sarkozy and Hollande.

With his mane of thick, graying hair and trademark red tie, Melenchon — a former Trotskyist turned teacher — has become a sensation.

A catchy pop tune about Melenchon became a hit on YouTube. "Take the power on me, Jean Luc, I wanna be your Bastille," croons the young blond starlet. Nobody seemed to care that the video turned out to have been produced by an ad agency bored with the campaign; it all added to the Melenchon buzz.

Journalist Jean Marc Illouz says Melenchon has struck a nerve with his revolutionary rhetoric and values.

"Melenchon is some sort of a Tea Party leftist," says Illouz. "He's a populist, and he attracts people that are disoriented by globalization and that do not trust the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande to be able to really fight against the capitalists."

The Melenchon surge has been awkward for Hollande, who needs the support of the far left without scaring off centrist voters. Sarkozy has warned that if elected, Hollande will be a hostage to Melenchon.

If elected president, Hollande might find it difficult to balance the demands of world financial markets and a revitalized French left. Melenchon has mocked Hollande's reassurance to markets that Hollande isn't dangerous by saying, "But we are very dangerous."

Melenchon's Bastille rally ended with a heartfelt chorus of the Marxist anthem "The International."

"So comrades, come rally," sang the crowd. "Servile masses, arise, arise."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The French go to the polls Sunday to choose between 10 candidates for president. The top two vote getters will face off in two weeks. One of the big surprises this year has been the resurgence of the radical left.

As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, their candidate has emerged from obscurity to become the most dynamic figure of the campaign.

JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Jean-Luc Melenchon's public rallies have easily rivaled those of mainstream candidates President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist front-runner Francois Hollande. A recent gathering at Paris' Bastille monument drew an estimated 100,000 fervent Melenchon supporters who listened to him in rapt attention.

MELENCHON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: They're wondering what is this phenomenon that filled this huge plaza, said Melenchon. We call it the citizens' revolution, and it has just begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: Melenchon proposes a popular insurrection to create a new French republic, one that will massively boost the minimum wage and make it illegal for profitable companies to lay off workers. He slices up French bankers and businessmen with his sharp wit and has declared solidarity with the debt-ridden Greek people while denouncing the oppression of Europe by financial markets. The Bastille crowd waved red flags and booed references to the rich. Retirees Claude and Annie Kossura traveled several hours from eastern France to hear Melenchon.

CLAUDE KOSSURA: (Through Translator) He represents values like sharing that have all but disappeared today in the face of the myth of money. Citizens don't feel part of their nation anymore. We belong to globalized markets and speculators. That has to change.

BEARDSLEY: Helped along by the economic crisis, Melenchon has tapped into working-class anger over wage inequality, the decline of French industry and global capitalism gone wild. Sprinkle in a little anti-immigrant rhetoric and this is the same platform that has boosted another fringe candidate, far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Melenchon and Le Pen now battle it out for third place behind mainstream candidates Sarkozy and Hollande. With his mane of thick graying hair and trademark red tie, Melenchon, a former Trotskyist turned teacher, has become a sensation. A catchy pop tune about Melenchon became a hit on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BEARDSLEY: Take the power on me, Jean Luc. I want to be your Bastille, croons the young blonde starlet. Nobody seemed to care that the video turned out to have been produced by an ad agency bored with the campaign. It all added to the Melenchon buzz. Journalist Jean Marc Illouz says Melenchon has struck a nerve with his revolutionary rhetoric and values.

JEAN MARC ILLOUZ: Melenchon is some sort of a Tea Party leftist. He's a populist, and he attracts people that are disoriented by globalization and that do not trust the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande to be able to really fight against the capitalists.

BEARDSLEY: A President Hollande might find it difficult to balance the demands of world financial markets and a revitalized French left. Melenchon has mocked Hollande's reassurance to markets that he isn't dangerous by saying: But we are very dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE INTERNATIONALE")

BEARDSLEY: His Bastille rally ended with a heartfelt chorus of the Marxist anthem "The Internationale." So, comrades, come rally. Servile masses, arise, arise, sang the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE INTERNATIONALE")

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE INTERNATIONALE")

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.