PARIS – Leftist parties that had nearly disappeared from the French political landscape have grown wings in the runup to Sunday’s legislative elections and now threaten to weaken President Emmanuel Macron and his hopes of slam-dunking his agenda through parliament.
An alliance of leftist parties cobbled together by hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon is now soaring in polls. The campaign poster “Melenchon Prime Minister” no longer draws chuckles from opponents.
Commentators have yet to agree on how to pronounce Nupes, the French acronym for the alliance, the New Popular Ecological and Social Union. Melenchon simply calls it the Popular Union. It combines his party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), Socialists, Communists and Greens.
“It is amazing, so inspiring and motivating. All of the left wing is in line behind Melenchon,” said Michael Gorre, a 45-year-old computer scientist attending a Paris rally last week by the coalition. “It feels good to have someone who talks about concrete things.”
Macron, a centrist, has made clear that it is he alone who names the prime minister, although in practice his choice is governed by the outcome of the election, which will not be clear until the second round on June 19. So if Nupes won a majority, he would likely pick someone from the coalition, but it might not be Melenchon.
Macron won a second mandate in April's presidential elections and is now looking for an absolute majority — 289 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house — to swiftly pass legislation. Among laws on his radar is his controversial decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. Melenchon, meanwhile, wants to lower it to 60.
The audacious bid by the 70-year-old Melenchon to be named head of government is symptomatic of France’s shattered political landscape. Traditional mainstream parties like the Socialists and the conservative right The Republicans slid off voters’ radar following losses in previous elections. Three blocs emerged: Melenchon’s hard left, Marine Le Pen’s far right and the centrists of Macron, who warn against “the extremes.”
Melenchon’s alliance is jockeying for the lead with Macron's centrists in polls. Nupes was on top in one poll this week, although within the margin of error. Le Pen, who lost to Macron in the presidential runoff, was third.
Le Pen is keenly aware that her anti-immigration National Rally party cannot compete with Melenchon’s alliance under the current voting system.
In calls to get out the vote, Le Pen asks supporters to help her party get as many deputies as possible in “last chance elections” to block the French president’s highway to unshackled power.
Unlike Melenchon’s bid for the job of prime minister, Le Pen’s more modest goal is to form a parliamentary group to gain more speaking time and other benefits. That requires a minimum of 15 lawmakers. Her party won only eight seats in 2017 voting.
“Jean-Luc Melenchon will never be prime minister. He is lying to the French ... a few days before his retirement,” Le Pen tweeted mockingly during a campaign trip Thursday to the southern beach town of Agde. She was referring to his decision not to try to renew his parliamentary seat, while she campaigns to keep hers.
Melenchon, a wily politician with an oratorical gift, has long been a figure on the French left, first in the Socialist Party and as senator. But it was only in 2016, when he founded the hard-left France Unbowed party that his profile matched his ambitions.
Melenchon’s appeal for social justice is among the draws for numerous voters, like Christelle Baker, 32, who sees his alliance as a helpline for her autistic brother.
“Nupes stands for social justice and ... themes like the health system, the environment, education, or the the situation of the disabled,” Baker said at the Paris rally in a packed theater. “We may not win but we can have a large parliamentary group. We can have our word to say.”
Melenchon’s alliance would raise minimum wages along with salaries in a plethora of sectors, and nationalize airports and highways. He slams “neoliberalism and the financialized economy.”
“Foreign commentators,” he said at last week’s Paris event, “If you want to know what France is, it is this: Liberty, equality, fraternity, and social welfare.”
For Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, Melenchon is the “Gallic Chavez.” That reference to one-time Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, known for his socialist revolution, has stuck on the man who seems to relish controversy.
Melenchon triggered his latest uproar by tweeting last weekend that “police kill,” after the death of a female passenger in a car that police on bicycles fired on when it refused to stop for a check.
Macron's view of Melenchon is that his views are extreme. “Nothing could be more dangerous than to add to world disorder the French disorder proposed by the extremes,” he was quoted in the French press as saying during a visit Thursday to the Tarn region.
A day earlier, a crowd of jubilant children surrounded the president, one jumping into his arms, during a visit to the impoverished Seine-Saint-Denis region outside Paris. One young girl asked where Melenchon was, saying, “I want Melenchon to win.”
The president told her that Melenchon wasn't there, then added, “I don’t want him to win, you see, in the legislatives. Otherwise, I can’t do things.”