French presidential candidates are using populist distractions to avoid discussing actual policy plans.
The day after US President Donald Trump’s victory over Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton, Jean-Luc Melenchon did not mince his words: “Bernie would have won.”
An unrepentant socialist, Melenchon believes that the mainstream parties of the left have caved in too much to the global neoliberal consensus and only he can rescue the masses from the populist appeal of the far-right.
Born in the Moroccan city of Tangiers in 1951, with Trotskyist sympathies evident in his early career, he served briefly as a minister under the Socialist Party government of former prime minister Lionel Jospin, and as member of French senate, until he split with the party in 2008.
Critical of the party’s growing acceptance of economic liberalism, Melenchon helped found the Left Party, which formed an electoral alliance with the French Communist Party, as the Left Front.
The year after the split, he won a seat in the European Parliament and in 2012 stood for president, coming fourth in the first round with just over 11 percent of the vote.
Polls for the 2017 presidential contest have seen him surpass the Socialist Party’s own left-leaning candidate Benoit Hamon, with Melenchon slowly creeping up on others.
He has faced calls to step down or form an alliance with his former party to give the left a better chance of securing the presidency, but Melenchon has steadfastly rejected them.
“My challenge is not to unite the left wing,” he told the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, adding his duty was to serve the “people”.
As president, Melenchon would introduce a 100 percent tax on monthly earnings above 33,000 euros ($35,000), cut the working week down from the 35 hours to 32, and increase the minimum wage to 1,300 euros a month.
The veteran leftist is hugely critical of the European Union, viewing it as a vehicle for neoliberal economics to the detriment of ordinary people.
Melenchon has promised to renegotiate the structure of the bloc and put France’s continued membership of the organisation to a referendum.
On NATO, he is even more critical, warning against following the US “war tank” in its confrontation with Russia, and promising a French withdrawal from the alliance.
Back at home, Melenchon has spoken out against rising anti-Muslim sentiment, but the avowed secularist is also a critic of public displays of religiosity.
“Jews were persecuted, then Protestants, and today Muslims,” he said after the burkini-ban scandal last year, which was later struck down by a French court.
However, the leftist presidential candidate has criticised fashion designers who produced lines aimed at veiled or headscarf wearing Muslim women.
Melenchon is also deeply critical of police conduct; condemning their “sadism” after the recent scandal involving Theo, a Paris teenager whose alleged rape and beating by police officers was captured on video.
A clearly defined progressive platform is winning him fans and after a surge in April the leftist is currently in third position in the polls.
The fate of Melenchon’s candidacy could rest on whether Hamon steps aside, pushing more left-leaning voters his way.
Their rivalry is instead becoming increasingly bitter, and their divisions over the EU make it unlikely that will happen.