The French Far Leftist Who Wants to Keep Refugees Out

In the presidential election set for May, Jean-Luc Melenchon will be battling Marine Le Pen for the angry-Frenchman vote.

Jean-Luc Melenchon arrives for La Fete de l'Humanite in La Courneuve, near Paris, September 10, 2016.
AFP / Thomas Samson

France was shut down once again on Thursday, the first strike after the summer vacation, though certainly not the last. The Paris Metro was packed, and bedlam reigned at the train stations and airports. Despite the raucous protests against making working hours more flexible, the demonstrations seemed like a funeral procession for President Francois Hollande and his Socialist Party.

Consider the most loyal supporters of the liberal-socialist idea in France: the teachers. A decade ago, 60 percent of France’s education professionals supported the Socialist Party. Based on current forecasts, only 24 percent of them will vote for the socialist candidate in the May presidential election.

Where has their support drifted to? Almost everywhere: the Greens, the Communists, the classic right and even the far right. Nine percent of teachers say they’ll vote for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

The socialists’ collapse has largely benefited one person: Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far-left leader and chairman of a movement with a name filled with contradictions: La France insoumise – France Rebellious or France Unsubdued.

Melenchon has been around for a long time; he was a member of the Socialist left back in the days of President Francoise Mitterrand. According to the polls, if the election were held today, he would win about 13.5 percent of the vote compared with Hollande’s 14 percent. Even if he has no chance to reach the second round, he has a very good chance to lead the left in the opposition as the Socialists wilt even further.

His rise is impressive because Melenchon is seen, even by many of his own followers, as someone often unpleasant to work with. In his defense, some of this behavior is linked to the fact that he has been almost deaf from birth. This  has led to an uncharacteristic phobia for a presidential candidate in any country: There’s nothing Melenchon hates more than being touched during a conversation.

Still, he has overcome not just image problems, but also the French’s historical wariness about candidates lacking a party. For his rivals, his popularity is impossible to understand; many on the left see Melenchon as a radical demagogue, a populist not very different from Le Pen.

The leader of France's far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, gestures at a meeting in Milan, January 28, 2016.
Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters

So what do the extreme right and extreme left have in common? A lot. Melenchon’s economic platform includes massive nationalization, for example. Le Pen wants to nationalize all the large plants ostensibly to bolster France against American corporations. Melenchon too has called for the nationalization of these plants; he merely cites the employers who are trampling workers’ rights.

The two have plenty more in common, from their opposition to the euro to their support for a ban on wearing the veil in public.

The most surprising point is Melenchon’s fierce opposition to opening France’s borders to refugees. For Israelis, the left is linked with humanism: helping anyone regardless of nationality, gender or religion.

But that’s not how it works in La France insoumise, a movement ostensibly to the left of the Communist Party. To Melenchon’s people, the Syrian refugees seeking to enter France, for example, are “nothing but those seeking jobs under the false cloak of political persecution.”

These views aren’t really surprising in the context of the New Left; they’re simply closer to Bernie Sanders and the American left than to the Socialist International. To Melenchon, as to Sanders, opening the borders to immigrants is in the interest of the right and the supporters of the most extreme form of capitalism.

After all, the left has won reasonable conditions for workers – a minimum wage, health insurance and paid vacation – and flooding France with illegal immigrants will let large companies, real estate developers and fancy restaurants shirk their obligations by using under-the-table labor.

Melenchon chose to explain all these ideas in a book that just came out, “Le choix de l’insoumission” (“The Choice of Rebelliousness”), based on conversations with journalist Marc Endeweld. Melenchon’s identification with Central and South America stands out in the work. He has crossed the Atlantic more than 50 times in the past decade and has counted Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa among his friends.

Melenchon is careful to obscure his relations with the anti-Zionist left in Britain, France and Arab countries, but he stands behind his extensive criticism of Israel and France’s Jewish organizations that support Israel. He dreams of a France without religion, ethnic communities and foreign interests not related to the French ethos. In the last presidential election, 11 percent of French voters picked him based on a similar platform.

So can he now achieve 20 percent of the vote? It seems all he has to do is continue to steal votes from the Socialists and Greens, but actually the polls show that his great potential lies in the completely opposite direction. Thirty percent of Le Pen’s traditional supporters say they may vote for Melenchon, which could explain his media campaign against immigration.

This could also explain the statements by his associates against the Jewish lobby. It’s possible France doesn’t really have a New Left, just the same old voters who are waking up from a long hibernation.