The streets of Toulouse in the south of France were alive with red flags and banners on Thursday of last week.
Some 70,000 people turned out to see Jean-Luc Melenchon, the radical left politician who has upset the balance of France’s presidential campaign.
Melenchon promises a “people’s insurrection” and campaigns to reverse cuts, strengthen workers’ rights—and impose a 100 percent tax rate for the rich.
Francois Hollande, candidate for the Labour-like Socialist Party, travelled to London to reassure City financiers, “I am not dangerous.” Melenchon, on the other hand, proudly proclaims, “I am dangerous.”
His Left Front—an alliance including the Communist Party and other left groups—has now overtaken the fascist Front National (FN) as France’s third party.
Last weekend conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy explicitly called on FN supporters to vote for him rather than risk splitting the right’s vote.
He said that he “understands” their suffering, but “a vote for the Front National in two weeks time will help Hollande”.
Sarkozy’s campaign has resorted more than ever to racist diatribes against Islam and immigration to compensate for support he is losing elsewhere.
His confrontation with pensions strikers in 2010 badly damaged him. And he is mired in his own cash-for-access scandal, over allegations of illegal donations from billionaire Liliane Bettencourt.
He tried to recover credibility by “saving” the Lejaby underwear factory from closure last month, but it only confirmed his image as a president for the rich.
The factory’s new owner was to be Bernard Arnault—the richest man in France and a personal friend of Sarkozy’s. This is the context for the Left Front’s success.
Melenchon has ruled out joining a Socialist-led government after the elections, because he does not want to have to vote for Hollande’s austerity budget.
But he is open to cooperation with the Socialist Party in the administrative elections that will follow—a dangerous path up which some Socialist Party members are keen to lead him.
Melenchon’s supporters have shaken the French political establishment, and shattered the idea that there is no support for opposing austerity.
A new radical alternative
Jean-Luc Melenchon was a minister in the last Socialist Party government of 2002.
But campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum over the European constitution brought him into closer cooperation with forces on the left.
The success of Die Linke in Germany inspired him to break with the Socialists. There, former minister Oskar Lafontaine left the Social Democrats to set up a party with Communists and others.
The meteoric rise of the Left Front Melenchon set up surprised commentators on all sides.
Hollande is still favourite to win the election. But the Socialist Party’s gradual drift to the right has left a vacuum for a real opposition movement.
The far left has not been able to respond to this effectively because of an internal crisis of the New Anticapitalist Party and the low level of workers’ struggle since the defeat of the pensions strikes.