As part of an ongoing series, EURACTIV France is profiling major candidates in the 2012 French presidential elections. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of the Left Front, has emerged as a potential 'third man' in the election, attracting voters' attention in opinion polls by calling for a “citizens’ insurrection” and a complete undoing of “ultra-liberal Europe”.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a former member of the Socialist Party who radicalised following his break with the rest of French political class over the stillborn European Constitutional Treaty.
He has attracted attention by reaching fourth place in the polls with 12-14% of voting intentions for the first round, leading against the centrist François Bayrou and almost equalling far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
His electoral support rests largely on disappointed socialists and the political apparatus of the French Communist Party, the second-largest political party in France in terms of members (it claims to have 138,000).
Today Mélenchon condemns the European Union as an “ultra-liberal construction”. But this has not always been the case. In 1992, then a member of the Socialist Party, he defended the “yes” vote for the Treaty of Maastricht and relaunched the process of monetary integration culminating in the euro.
He officially left the Socialist Party in 2008, but the break started as early as 2005, when he fought the campaign for the “no” vote to the European Constitutional Treaty, going against the party line.
Mélenchon called the triumph of the “no” a “joyous, people’s and pro-European ‘no’. The peoples of Europe must know that the French have said no to one Europe, liberal Europe, they have not said no to all Europe”.
Mélenchon is known in France for his often aggressive rhetoric. His violent exchanges with journalists and politicians have been frequently aired on satirical news shows. His blog is one of the most read in France, typically having over 100,000 visitors and hundreds of comments for each post.
On 18 March, he was able to assemble over 100,000 activists and sympathisers in Paris, a demonstration of force comparable to those of the leading candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
The candidate of the Left Front had called this rally the “storming of the Bastille” (it took place at the former location of the infamous Ancien régime prison) and called on his supporters to a “citizens’ insurrection”. This symbolic and spectacular rhetoric have allowed him to reconcile the French Left with its revolutionary tradition and mythology.
Contempt for the European Parliament
With all this, it would be easy to forget that Mélenchon has also been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009, a job he finds little satisfaction in.
He told Euronews in March 2012: “To be here is hopeless. It’s a Parliament which cannot propose any laws, it’s the only Parliament in the world which is like that, which has no legislative initiative. … It’s not allowed by the Lisbon Treaty. And naturally it cannot change the Treaty.”
The MEP is very little involved in his parliamentary duties. According to VoteWatch, his rate of presence at the Strasbourg plenary sessions is of 64.43%, making him 735th out of 751 representatives. He has not served as draftsman for a single EU law. By way of comparison, Green MEP and fellow presidential candidate Eva Joly has drafted four over three years.
To help in his work, Mélenchon has, according to the European Parliament website, five parliamentary assistants (for €20,000 per month), working as a “locals” and not in Brussels.
Total revision of European Treaties
The bulk of Mélenchon’s programme is a small red book, of about 90 pages, sold in bookstores for €2, or available online. On Europe, as with French society, the objective is the same: to clearly break with the existing system.
In its current setup, he rejects any transfer of additional power towards Brussels.
“We must not transfer any new competencies to the EU, not so long as the power does not reside in the hands of the European Parliament. The institutions are imposing the brutal federalism of the Commission and of Franco-German governance in case of crisis. The victim in all this is democracy,” he told EURACTIV France in February.
The Left Front candidate lambasts the Lisbon Treaty, just as he opposed the proposed European Constitutional Treaty. According to him, the new European basic law which entered into force in November 2009 is a copy of that rejected by the French and the Dutch in 2005, and is therefore illegitimate.
Mélenchon wants to “free ourselves of Lisbon” and lead “a political and diplomatic battle for a new European treaty … which respects the sovereignty of the peoples”.
In a Europe largely dominated by Conservative governments (20 member states out of 27), it is almost impossible to find a majority for modifying the treaties in the way Mélenchon would like.
His Alter-European friends
In the European Parliament, Mélenchon sits with a small political group, the United European Left / Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). The group has 35 MEPs from 12 countries and counts 17 political parties among its national members, including the German party Die Linke and various communist parties.
The ideas of Die Linke are very close to those of the Left Front. “Both are creations of dissidents of a traditional socialist party,” said Olivier Ferrand, president of the centre-left think-tank Terra Nova.
This radical left is attempting to organise itself. On 30 and 31 March, it met in Brussels for an “Alternative European Summit against austerity and for a social, democratic and ecologic Europe”.
None of these parties are however in a position to govern alone in any of the EU's 27 member countries.
Refusal to apply EU laws
However, this seems of little importance to Mélenchon because his programme clearly states that, if elected, France would refuse “to apply directives clashing with our [electoral] commitments”. The leader of the Left Front hopes that this “disobedience will spread like an oil slick” and “break the liberal bloc within the EU”.
A strategy which is similar to the General Charles de Gaulle’s 'empty chair' policy in the 1960s, but also of Nicolas Sarkozy’s positions on Schengen.
If the Left Front does not propose to leave the EU as do other candidates (such the far-right Marine Le Pen and the neo-Gaullist Nicolas Dupont Aignan), the effects would be similar.
In February, Mélenchon argued that “one cannot make Europe without France,” evoking indirectly the need for a power struggle.
“We must not see the others as enemies. But France has a voice to express, which it does not do when it appears as the follower" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he added.
The candidate criticises European civil servants and the “technocracy” at the orders “of the ultra-liberalism and monetarism long-promoted by the British and German governments”.
In an interview with EURACTIV France last February, Mélenchon expressed his conviction that France can be at the “vanguard” of a new Europe and that his score could inspire others. There are elections planned across several European countries including in Greece on 6 May, in Italy in spring 2013, and in Germany in September 2013.
Reform of the European Central Bank
Like many candidates – including Sarkozy and Hollande – Mélenchon backs a reform of the European Central Bank (ECB). There is no question of him accepting the vision of Angela Merkel, whom he called a “parochial madame” and a “peasant” in April 2012.
He proposes a revision of the mandate and statutes of the ECB, which must be placed “under democratic control to allow it to lend at low – or even nil – rates, directly to the states, and to buy public debt”.
This is the opposite of the ECB’s current mandate. The Frankfurt-based institute is independent, cannot lend to EU countries and buys debt only on the secondary markets. This reform is critical to the financing of the Left Front’s programme.
But there too, any change would require the unanimity of member states. And both German conservatives and social democrats oppose the idea.
The Left Front leader considers “amazing” that Mario Draghi was appointed as president of the ECB last September. “He is the former representative for Europe of the bank Goldman Sachs … which is accused of having helped the right-wing Greek government cook the books. This man is now the director of the European Central Bank!”
Rejection of 'Merkozy' crisis management
It is no surprise that Mélenchon is highly critical of the way that the debt crisis has been managed by eurozone governments. He is opposed to the measures taken by the Troika and he protested in February in front of the Greek embassy in Paris to assert his solidarity with the Greek people and denounce the new austerity measures that were being adopted then in the Greek Parliament.
He condemned the European Stability Mechanism (the eurozone bailout fund) and pressured the Socialist Party to reject it in the National Assembly during a vote on 21 February. With some success it would appear as socialist MPs finally decided to abstain.
While Socialist candidate François Hollande wants to renegotiate the fiscal discipline Treaty, Mélenchon proposes to submit it to a referendum, all the while condemning it.
After having brought down high finance and liberal Europe, the objective of the Left Front is to create a “social Europe”.
The programme states: “Public services, with the new creations at the continental level, will become a pillar of European construction”. If he was elected, new privatisations of public services such as rail would be out of the question.
On the contrary, some industries would have to be re-nationalised. The Left Front also wants to create “a European social, ecological and solidarity Fund” which would replace the European Stability Mechanism.
One of the rare subjects on which the Left Front and the European Commission find common ground is the establishment of a tax on financial transactions. Mélenchon also proposes putting in place of a European minimum wage calculated based on the average income of each country. The Commission has incidentally recently proposed a project for introducing EU-wide minimum salaries.
Fiscal harmonisation are also among the objectives “to prevent social dumping between EU member countries”. The latter measure has long been backed by Brussels but governments have always opposed it. But any agreement in this area is compromised by the need for unanimity.
If Sarkozy wants to renegotiate the Schengen agreement, denouncing “leaky Europe”, Mélenchon in contrast argues in favour of ending “fortress Europe” by opening up borders.
On agriculture, the EU's biggest budget post, the Left Front wants a “GMO-free” Common Agricultural Policy allowing for “food sovereignty” with production “centred on the needs of the internal market rather than trade”.
To guarantee “fair remuneration of agricultural work” the programme proposes that “minimum prices for producers” be reinstated, which would amount to undoing the most recent reforms of the CAP.