PARIS — When far-leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon failed to advance into the second round of the French election Sunday night, his supporters did not only bemoan the defeat of their Bernie Sanders. They also had to accept that their project to radically change French democracy seemed to have failed.
At least for now.
Four hours after exit polls first indicated that Mélenchon would not make it, shattered groups of supporters were still sipping their beers in a bar near the Gare du Nord train station where the politician had planned to celebrate his victory.
“Resistance,” some of them shouted and the prevailing sentiment there was one of defiance — against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen but also, and perhaps more surprisingly, against centrist Emmanuel Macron. Sunday night, Mélenchon was the only leading candidate who refrained from urging his supporters to vote for Macron in the second round.
It is a message which appears to have resonated well among his supporters. Many of them said they would either stay at home during the second round or submit a blank vote. “Our goal is to change the way our democracy works,” said 19-year-old Parisian Zoea Brahams.
“Of course, I would feel bad if our abstentions led to a Le Pen presidency, but we simply cannot continue to vote for a candidate we do not like only to prevent the rise of the far-right, as we have done for years now,” she said. Other bystanders weighed in to agree with her.
“Politicians like Macron are responsible for the rise of the far-right,” said 26-year-old Jeanne Chevalier. “Their neoliberal policies have led to the unemployment which explains the current dissatisfaction.”
Especially among younger voters, Mélenchon was by far the most popular candidate. About 30 percent of all 18- to 24-year-old voters chose him, followed by Le Pen, who was supported by 21 percent.
Polls show that Macron is expected to have a clear lead over Le Pen in the second round in which only the two candidates will compete. Abstentions or blank votes, however, could significantly shrink the buffer between the centrist European Union advocate and the far-right politician.
“A significant minority will not vote,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political analyst who emphasized that he believes a majority of Mélenchon’s supporters would now back Macron.
The former candidate’s most enthusiastic fans are not so sure about that.
“There is a general feeling here that most Mélenchon supporters will not vote for Macron,” campaign member Luc Weinstein, 27, said Monday. “Macron used to be President Hollande's economics minister. Voting for Macron is like voting for Hollande,” Weinstein said. President François Hollande is deeply unpopular in France, and many younger people who voted for him in 2012 argue that he has failed to deliver on one of his central promises, to support French youths.
The question of whether to issue an official voting recommendation to Mélenchon’s supporters will now be posed in the kind of online poll that the movement used to write its manifesto. The chances that the far-leftist movement will end up issuing such a recommendation are low because most members active on the platform are deeply committed to Mélenchon.
It is also unclear whether the former candidate’s support for Macron would really make a difference.
Even a strong encouragement would be unlikely to prevent the approximately 10 percent of his voters who previously supported Le Pen from returning to the camp of the far-right. The leftist candidate’s anti-globalization message had resonated remarkably well in some areas with high unemployment that are usually predominantly pro-Le Pen.
Paradoxically, the defeat of a far-left candidate could motivate some voters to shift to the far-right.
Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.