On Monday, after he boarded the plane that would take him and Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez on a cross-country tour, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked whether the traveling reporters had followed what was happening in France. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the irascible coalition candidate of the far left, had leapfrogged the Socialist candidate and was in the hunt for a runoff spot in Sunday’s election.
In an interview the next day, Sanders explained that he saw his own political support as of a piece with what was happening in France, and what had happened to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.
“What we are seeing internationally, all over the world, is a feeling that the world is changing very, very rapidly,” said Sanders. “Technology is changing. The world economy is changing. And a lot of people are feeling left behind. People who feel that way, whether they’re in the United Kingdom, whether they’re in France, whether they’re in the United States, are asking: ‘What did I do wrong?’ The answer is that they didn’t do anything wrong.”
Sanders, unique among American politicians, likes to contrast his country’s politics and policy with the rest of the world. Where other candidates talk about “American exceptionalism,” Sanders asks audiences why Canada runs laps around the United States on health care, or why Europeans can expect weeks of family leave while Americans work as contractors without it.
At the same time, Sanders has embraced an international media tendency to link him to left-wing politicians — with surging under-30 followings — across Europe. In 2015, as Corbyn locked up the Labour leadership, Sanders told a British reporter for BuzzFeed that he was following the race and saw some solidarity in it.
“People are sick and tired of establishment politics; they are sick and tired of a politics where politicians go out and represent the rich and powerful,” he said in Iowa.
Two years later, Mélenchon welcomed the comparison to Sanders. In an interview this month with Jacobin, Mélenchon’s spokesman Raquel Garrido said that his candidate, like Sanders, had escaped a tedious debate about left-wing politics by running as a populist.
“We want to win,” said Garrido. “I think we are similar to Bernie Sanders in that way, who rarely spoke about ‘the Left,’ but about the people against the 1 percent or the billionaire class.”
Mélenchon’s agenda, however, goes much further than Sanders. Part of that’s owed to the existing politics of France, where much of Sanders’s agenda — cheap college, national health care, generous child care — is already law. Mélenchon’s most attention-getting idea is an effective maximum income, a 100 percent tax on income over $427,000.
What Sanders and Mélenchon have in common is a narrative. In France, a popular meme has retold our 2016 presidential election in simple terms — voters rejected a left populist (Sanders), nominated a neoliberal (Clinton) and got a right-wing populist (Trump). In France, the Clinton role is assigned to Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist government minister who spent most of his career as a banker; the Trump role goes to Marine Le Pen, who runs the racial nationalist party her father founded.
France’s electoral system scrambles the analogy. Two candidates will win runoff berths; the second round will go to the winner of the popular vote. In polls, Macron leads Le Pen by 25 to 30 points in a runoff; Melenchon leads by about 10 points. But what worries Sanders, and what worries the French left, is that even a victory of a neoliberal candidate over a right-wing populist will allow populism to grow on the right while the left is boxed out. Sanders’s tour this week, for all the negative headlines it’s drawn, is an effort to prevent that happening again in America.