Unsubmissive France: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the new ‘sun king’ of the French left | International

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has stunned half of France. To admirers and adversaries. Everything has gone very fast. Few saw him coming. He now he is the man of the moment. After decades of laborious waiting, he for the first time assumes command of his ideological camp: the left.

The veteran Mélenchon (Tangier, 70 years old) has established himself as the leader of this ideological camp after coming third in the first round of the presidential elections on April 10. He got 22% of the votes. From Eurosceptic positions and with the rhetoric of populism, he has imposed himself on environmentalists, communists and socialists, and has united them under his tutelage. He dreams of becoming, if the leftist alliance wins a majority in the June legislative elections, the prime minister of the centrist Emmanuel Macron.

“He played a game of poker against some guys who don’t know how to play poker,” says Julien Dray, who was a militant for decades alongside Mélenchon in the Socialist Party (PS) and is the leader who inspired the character of the politician who is the protagonist of the series television Baron Noir.

“Jean-Luc has always shown his courage in the most difficult moments,” says Pablo Iglesias, a friend of Mélenchon, former vice president of the Spanish government and founder of the sister party Podemos. “He is someone who does not get complexed. He has a will to win, to be president and now prime minister without having to give up certain approaches”, he adds.

Theatrical and Cartesian. Demagogue and cultured. Human and charismatic, with a legion of devotees. And explosive. In the retina of the French has remained the moment, in 2018, when he confronted a police officer who was searching his electoral headquarters and out of his mind he shouted: “I am the Republic!”

“It is true that I have a temperament,” he admitted in 2019 to EL PAÍS in his office as a deputy in the National Assembly. “But I’m like that: Mediterranean.” On the wall hung a map of the Mediterranean. But with an alternative approach. turkey below; Spain, above. That map explained something about Mélenchon: his will to turn the tables.

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Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in his office at the National Assembly in Paris, during an interview with this newspaper in 2019.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in his office at the National Assembly in Paris, during an interview with this newspaper in 2019.Eric Hadj (Eric Hadj)

“What he wants is not to be president. He does not dream of being prime minister, ”says journalist Marion Lagardère, author of the book What is Mélenchon really like? “What he wants is to cause a change.”

The map revealed something else: a look southern, mediterranean. Mélenchon does not look to the north or to the European Union: they are not his references. Nor to Germany, “a taboo subject in France”, he thinks. “If one speaks of Germany in a critical way, he is immediately accused of Germanophobia and of wanting to provoke war.” He looks south. To Latin America. And to the Mediterranean and to Spain, the land of the grandparents.

“His surname is not French, it is Spanish: melenchon”, emphasizes Iglesias. And he remembers meetings and joint press conferences in which the French spoke fluently in the language of his ancestors. “He wears it on a show,” says Iglesias, “as a matter of identity.”

The new sun king on the left was born on the outskirts of the declining colonial empire. His father was employed in the telegraphs. Her mother, a teacher. In 1962 they leave North Africa, like millions of French in this area after wars and independence, and settle in the idealized France.

Years of youth: May 1968, studies in philosophy, Trotskyist militancy in the so-called branch Lambertista small group that directs the guru Pierre Lambert and whose members feel called to lead. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was Lambertistlike Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, general secretary of the same party.

“In the assemblies, Mélenchon could not stand the murmur while he spoke, he told them to hell, he left cursing”, recalls Cambadélis. “It hasn’t changed!” he assures.

Cambadélis sees traces of the Trotskyism of that time in the current Mélenchon. “His talent is oratory art,” he says. “It’s about making a non-technocratic speech, but one that tells a story while dismantling the arguments of its opponents.” Another trait: “A certain intellectual terrorism; whoever is not with me is my enemy.”

From Trotskyism to Socialism. Eighties. With François Mitterrand at the Elysée, Mélenchon settles in institutional politics and advances, from local to national politics, until in 2000 Jospin appoints him minister. a race of apparatchik of the PS and at the same time of the revolutionary conscience of a party caught between radicalism and reformism.

“He was very, very socialist. Very republican. And a Mason”, Dray reminds him, who was also a Trotskyist, although from another current. “Socialist and ecologist and republican”, Lagardère defines him. Iglesias: “He has always been a socialist. The problem is that many so-called ceased to be so and opted for neoliberal policies.

In that interview in his office, Mélenchon was reluctant to declare himself a leftist. “I avoid it, because I know it creates more confusion than clarity.” “What is a source of inspiration for me,” he said, “is Chavismo, the process that South Americans call Bolivarian and we call citizen revolution.” Populist? “I assume it”, he had declared in 2010.

At the beginning of the century, the European socialist parties, without responses to globalization, were approaching the third way. The French PS resisted. For Mélenchon, not enough. He defended the not to the constitutional treaty of the EU in 2005. And he slammed the door. “He abandoned social democracy and entered into a logic of the Bolivarian revolution: a boss and everyone behind him,” says Dray. “His great twist was the meeting with Hugo Chávez,” confirms Cambadélis. “Chávez fascinated him, as he is fascinated by the men of history, the great ones.”

It’s not just Chavez. Francois Mitterrand too. Because he joined the left. And because he projected the calm that Mélenchon now seeks.

Critics accuse him of complacency with Vladimir Putin’s Russia until the invasion of Ukraine. And they describe his party, La Francia Insumisa, as Islamo-leftist. That is, of having approached, for the sake of defending minorities, the claims of Islamist groups about the veil or in denouncing Islamophobia.

He is also criticized for caudillismo: despite promoting the end of the very monarchical Fifth Republic, few in France embody the image of a providential man like him. Others insist that he does not seek power, but influence. “His referents of him”, according to Largardère, who frequented him as a journalist for years, “are Jean Jaurès and León Trotsky: people who think about strategy and are the engine of change”. The father of socialism and that of Trotskyism.

The power is not clear that it reaches him. No poll gives him the parliamentary majority he aspires to. Influence is something else. He already reigns on the left. He has subdued the PS. Although for the third time he was out of the second round in the presidential elections, he has sold the defeat as a victory. And it has worked.

“In the context of right-wing and a threat to democracy, clearer lefts are needed, and he expresses that,” Pablo Iglesias analyzes. “My feeling is that the future is going to go that way.”

When Julien Dray is asked what his fictional transcript would say, the baron noir, seeing that Mélenchon devours his old party, replies: “You have to say the following to Mélenchon: ‘You wanted to play and keep everything. Okay. But you have two solutions. If you win the elections in June, bravo!’ If not, get lost.”

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