It is a great historical irony that, at the very moment the once mighty French Communist Party enters its last twilight, it has at long last backed a candidate who, if Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s surging poll numbers are to be believed, has a serious chance of winning France’s impending presidential elections. That arguably the most powerful of Western Europe’s postwar communist parties (and at one time France’s largest party) today hangs on to a handful of city halls in its former industrial strongholds and, no longer capable of running a credible presidential candidate of its own, instead rallies other organizations in support of a candidate with no association with the party (an ex-Trotskyist to boot!) is testament to how history has passed orthodox communism by. Nonetheless, that so fiery a critic of capitalism as Mélenchon has come so close to France’s highest elected office points to mounting dissatisfaction with France’s political institutions and neoliberalism alike. Communism may be dead, but the struggle against capital has manifestly taken on new life in France.
Mélenchon’s lifetime of political activism and public service bridges two distinct worlds for the French left: the period of creative possibility following May ’68, on the one hand, and the current moment of disarray and reconstruction in the wake of François Hollande’s disastrous five years as president, on the other, an arc traced by the Socialist Party’s long march to and in power. Born in Tangiers in 1951, his parents a postman and an elementary-school teacher who were themselves born in French Algeria of Spanish immigrants, Mélenchon later moved with his mother to Franche-Comté. Politicized as a high-school student during May ’68, Mélenchon joined the Lambertist strand of French Trotskyism—a small but important piece in the richly contested tapestry of the French left in the 20th century, which pursued a strategy of infiltrating political parties and unions known as “entryism,” and whose ranks counted figures like former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, former head of the Force Ouvrière labor union Marc Blondel, and current first secretary of the Socialist Party (PS) Jean-Christophe Cambadélis. Finding work as a schoolteacher and journalist, Mélenchon also participated in the 1970s workers’ self-management struggle at the LIP watchmaker factory.
Mélenchon joined the Socialist Party (PS) in 1976 (only quitting the Lambertists around 1979), and François Mitterrand’s victory in the 1981 presidential elections helped accelerate his rise through the party’s ranks. He represented the southern Paris suburbs as departmental councilor and senator, and served in Jospin’s cabinet in the early 2000s. Always on the left wing of the PS, he is a battle-scarred veteran of its always-contentious party congresses, a constant opponent of the Socialists’ successive compromises with the market since 1983. Though Mélenchon supported the Maastricht Treaty that initiated the transformation of the Common Market into the European Union, setting it on track toward a common currency in France’s 1992 referendum, he rapidly disavowed it to become one of the few members of one of the most strongly Europhile parties in Europe to consistently oppose the EU for its neoliberal tropism. Opposed to the Treaty of Amsterdam in the late 1990s, Mélenchon campaigned against his own party during the French referendum on the European Constitution in 2005.
Convinced that the PS had sailed too far into free-market-friendly seas, Mélenchon quit the party after Ségolène Royal’s loss to Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections. Taking inspiration from Germany’s newly created Die Linke formation, Mélenchon founded the Parti de Gauche in 2008 in the hopes of building an authentically left-wing political force in the void left by a withering French Communist Party (PCF) and an increasingly centrist PS. Already in the 2012 presidential elections, Mélenchon’s capacity to mobilize large, enthusiastic crowds and his unexpectedly strong showing in the first round (finishing fourth, with 11 percent of votes cast) suggested he had rightly discerned room on the left and was himself capable of occupying it.