LE HAVRE, France — Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading left-wing candidate in France’s upcoming presidential election, once compared himself to one of nature’s slowest animals.
“Trust in a wise and electoral turtle like me,” he said said at a rally in January. “Slow and steady wins the race.” And, he added derisively, “I’ve already tired a few hares.”
Now, almost two weeks before the first round of voting on April 10, Mr Mélenchon – a veteran politician who made his third presidential bid 17 months ago – hopes that Aesop’s fable about the tortoise coming from behind turns out to be prescient.
For months, Mr Mélenchon and other candidates crowded the polls under President Emmanuel Macron, the centrist incumbent, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, hoping to disrupt their widely anticipated rematch.
But Mr Mélenchon, 70, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed movement, has surged in voter polls recently. He now sits comfortably in third place at around 14 per cent, largely ahead of his competitors on the left and a few points behind Ms Le Pen, whose fierce competition with Éric Zemmour, an anti-immigrant expert, has eaten her support.
An overall win for Mr. Mélenchon still seems far away. But a left-wing candidate to make it to the second round for the first time since 2012 would be astonishing, especially in a race that has long been dominated by right-wing debates about security, immigration and national identity.
“I’m starting to think it’s possible,” said Jérôme Brossard, 68, a retiree who recently attended a small meeting of Mélenchon in Le Havre, a working-class port city on France’s north coast.
About 200 people gathered at a community center for the event, where walls were lined with posters reading ‘Another world is possible’. Some waved France Unbowed flags or wore stickers of the candidate’s face on their chests.
Mr Brossard said friends and family had recently expressed an interest in Mr Mélenchon, which had sparked his hopes and prompted him, for the first time ever, to put up campaign posters in the city.
Learn more about the French presidential elections
The run-up to the first round of the elections was dominated by issues of security, immigration and national identity.
Mr Mélenchon, a former Trotskyist and longtime member of the socialist party who left in 2008 after accusing the party of moving to the centre, is a perennial but divisive figure in France’s notoriously heady left-wing politics.
A fiery, skilled orator with a reputation for hot-tempered – “I’m the Republic!” he once yelled at a police officer who raided his party headquarters in 2018 – Mr Mélenchon has also taken stances on controversial issues such as secularism, race and France’s colonial history, putting him at odds with those on the left who are stricter model of a secular, color-blind republic.
But as the global economy struggles to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine drives up prices of energy and essential goods, Mr Mélenchon’s unabashedly left-wing platform, including a pledge to impose price controls to some basic necessities, resonates.
“That’s his favorite terrain,” said Manuel Cervera-Marzal, a sociologist at the University of Liège who has written a book analyzing the France Unbowed movement.
“He is running an old-fashioned, left-wing campaign that focuses on issues of inequality and purchasing power,” he said, adding that Mr Mélenchon had softened his image of being “somewhat ill-tempered” and “irregular”. politician while maintaining his “populist” strategy of turning the people against the elite.
Voters most attracted to Mr. Mélenchon – who skew the young, the unemployed and the working class – also make their decisions later than most, which helps explain why Mr Mélenchon’s polls have risen as the finish line approaches, according to Mr Cervera. marshal.
But that’s also the electorate most likely to stay home on election day, he warned.
“It’s a crucial issue,” he said. “The lower the abstinence, the higher Jean-Luc Mélenchon will go.”
Mr Mélenchon still faces many obstacles. Other left-wing leaders have resisted rallying to his campaign, reprimanding him for his pro-Russian comments before the invasion of Ukraine and saying his fiery nature made him unfit to rule.
“We need a useful president, not just a useful voice,” François Hollande, France’s socialist president from 2012 to 2017, told France Inter Radio this month, when he criticized Mr Mélenchon’s and his anti-NATO stance. willingness to unsubscribe attacked. of the rules of the European Union.
In 2017, Mr Mélenchon missed the second round of voting by just a percentage point, a bitter disappointment that his team is eager to repeat. The campaign of Mr. Mélenchon has held hundreds of small but crowded rallies and sent dozens of caravans across the country to attract disillusioned voters.
“It’s time for the final all-out offensive!” said Adrien Quatennens, a France Unbowed legislator, at the rally in Le Havre. “It’s a vote worth a thousand strikes, a thousand protests!”
Turnout was low in Le Havre for last year’s regional elections, but the city, with its dock workers and powerful unions, is still fertile ground for Mr Mélenchon’s campaign. A third of the city voted for him in 2017.
Catherine Gaucher, 51, sitting in the back row at the rally, said she had a bit of sympathy for the Greens at first.
Who is running for the presidency of France?
The campaign begins. French citizens will go to the polls in April to elect a president. Here is an overview of the candidates:
“But the platform they are putting forward, no, it’s macronism,” she said, referring to Mr Macron, who is widely portrayed on the left as the “president of the rich”.
In contrast, Mr. Mélenchon has vowed to lower the statutory retirement age from 62 from 62 to 60; introduce a monthly minimum wage of $1,400, or about $1,500; and raise taxes on the rich, including by reintroducing a wealth tax that Mr Macron has repealed.
He is also determined to replace the country’s constitution, which gives the president a strong upper hand, with a new parliamentary system. He has pledged to invest massively in green energy and the fight against sexism and violence against women, and to overhaul the French police, in response to the #MeToo and anti-police violence protests of recent years.
Even the most vocal critics of Mr. Mélenchon recognize his thoroughness. Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, the head of a powerful association of France’s largest companies and one of Mr Mélenchon’s biggest opponents, said last month that Mr Mélenchon was “ready to rule”, with a “very well made” and “interesting” platform.
Clémence Guetté, who is part of the team in charge of that platform, said the Covid-19 pandemic — in which Macron turned from pro-market disruptive to brazen state spending to support the French economy — had helped legitimize Mr. Mélenchon’s own generous spending plans.
“The mentality is not the same,” she said.
But Mr Mélenchon still struggles to attract left-wing voters who currently support other candidates.
“Many of them wonder how efficient their vote is,” Mr Quatennens said in an interview, adding that voters wanted to avoid a rematch between Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron.
During a mass demonstration in Paris last week, Mr. Mélenchon directly appealed to left-wing sympathizers. “Everyone is personally responsible for the outcome of the presidential election, because everyone has the key to the second round,” he said in his speech. “Don’t hide behind the differences between leaders and labels.”
But the pool of left-wing voters to draw from is small.
A survey by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a progressive think tank, found that about 40 percent of those who currently support the Socialist, Green or Communist candidates will eventually vote for Mr Mélenchon. But those candidates score so low that the extra support may not push him into the second round.
Still, Sarah Maury-Lascoux, 51, a literature teacher at the rally in Le Havre, was confident. The French left must overcome its divisions, she said, and rally behind “the only candidate who manages to ascend”.
Constant Meheutreported from Le Havre and Aurelien Breedenfrom Paris.