Just over a week before the first round of French presidential elections are scheduled, the messy field of 11 contenders was jolted by a sudden surge in poll numbers for a far-left populist candidate named Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose policies are so liberal they make Bernie Sanders look like a right-winger.
A fan of Hugo Chavez, Mélenchon wants to impose a 100 percent tax on those who earn above €400,000 — effectively a salary cap — and channel that money into public spending on things like poverty reduction and job creation. He has proposed making the famously short French workweek even shorter, bringing it from 35 to 32 hours. Like many populists in Europe, he’s deeply skeptical of the European Union and international trade deals, and has even proposed taking France out of NATO and moving closer to Russia.
The 69-year-old Mélenchon is a former socialist who left the party in 2008 after having served some 30 years in various ministerial positions. He now heads a new party that is far to the left of the socialists, called France Insoumise — widely translated as “France Unbowed” or “Untamed,” but perhaps more evocatively translated as “Unsubmissive France.” His supporters are called les insoumises, or the unsubmissives.
Long stuck in fifth position, and all but completely dismissed as a contender, Mélenchon was polling just around 12 percent back in early March. Then last week, he suddenly popped way up in the polls: He’s now jostling with conservative candidate François Fillon (who has been mired in scandal for weeks) for third place, with 19 percent of the vote.
With Emmanuel Macron, the centrist former banker, and the far-right populist Marine Le Pen both polling only a bit higher, at 22.5 and 23 percent respectively, some election watchers are now wondering if Mélenchon might be poised for a stunning upset.
Unlikely as it sounds, it’s certainly possible. In a post-Brexit, post-Trump era where populism is upending politics across the West, all bets are off.
Mélenchon appeals to voters fed up with the political establishment
Mélenchon’s surge is partly explained by French millennials and the French disgruntled with globalization: They like his outsider talk and his eloquent takedowns of his opponents during the two televised presidential debates.
Fans of his policies even made a video game called “Fiscal Kombat” featuring a determined Mélenchon walking down a street, meeting men, and then shaking them down — literally — so that money falls from their pockets. Take a look (you don’t really need to speak French to get it):
Mélenchon liked the game so much that his campaign actually posted a video of him trying it:
Much like the FN’s Le Pen, Mélenchon’s populist rhetoric appeals to many in France who are unhappy with the entrenched political establishment and the direction France has taken in recent years.
A charismatic speaker, he has captured the attention of those who like Le Pen’s outsider status but feel uncomfortable with her virulent anti-immigrant stance and the FN’s history of anti-Semitism. Mélenchon preaches kindness to refugees — even if he hasn’t really wanted to let them into France. (He argues France would be best off if refugees and migrants wanted to stay home.)
In the past few weeks, Mélenchon’s rallies have begun to attract massive crowds of supporters: On Wednesday, some 12,000 people came out to a rally in the French central city of Lille, with supporters shouting, "Resistance, resistance!" On Sunday, in the French southern city Toulouse, officials estimated 40,000 appeared at a Mélenchon rally. (His campaign claimed it was more like 70,000.) He has 284,000 YouTube channel subscribers, and made use of Twitter before many French politicians.
Melénchon’s rapid rise is spooking markets and economists
Fears that the presidential election could come down to an unexpected runoff between the staunchly anti-EU Le Pen and the just-as-staunchly anti-EU Mélenchon — instead of between Le Pen and the centrist former banker Macron — have caused markets to react negatively, with the euro already falling against the dollar and the yen in response.
Economists and business leaders, too, are reacting with alarm. "With the growing threat of euroskeptic parties destabilizing the eurozone's unity weighing heavily on sentiment, the euro may be in store for further punishment," Lukman Otunuga, a research analyst with FXTM, a foreign exchange brokerage firm, told ABC News last week.
One leader of a French business group, Pierre Gattaz, told journalists that the choice between Le Pen and Mélenchon would be between “economic disaster and economic chaos.”
Even France’s current socialist president, François Hollande, is sounding the alarm, warning of the “peril” of supporting Mélenchon.
Mélenchon himself seems amused by the uproar his sudden success has sparked: "Once again my election victory is being announced like the onset of a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, the Red Army's tanks and the landing of the Venezuelans," he wrote on his blog.
Whether Mélenchon — and his plague of frogs — will ultimately succeed, though, is anyone’s guess.