PARIS — He may not have won the battle, but he could still win the war.
At first glance, Jean-Luc Mélenchon — the far leftist who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the French presidency this year — may seem something of a caricature. The 66-year-old Trotskyite often says nicer things about President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela than about the European Union, and his condemnations of capitalism are regular fare on his popular YouTube channel or via hologram, as he appeared at election rallies throughout France.
But the Mao-jacketed Mélenchon is far more than a cartoon character. He is now the de facto leader of the opposition to President Emmanuel Macron and his sweeping, pro-business agenda. While Macron’s popularity has plummeted to record lows since the election, Mélenchon’s has remained consistently high. According to one poll in April, the anti-NATO protectionist is among the most esteemed figures in French political life, with an approval rating of 68 percent.
Earlier this year, the success of Macron and his centrist coalition was widely heralded as the dawn of a new era in French and European politics: a period that replaced the age-old partisan divide of left and right with one that pitted globalists against populists. But this new landscape has proven fertile ground for Mélenchon and his followers. Against Macron’s centrist platform, a muscular, unapologetic far left is on the rise — and it shows no signs of compromising or evaporating.
With 19 percent of the vote, Mélenchon did not qualify for the second and final round of the French election in May. He also won only 17 of 577 parliamentary seats for his newly founded political party, La France Insoumise, “France Unbowed,” in the legislative elections that followed. But three months into Macron’s tenure, Mélenchon has nevertheless emerged as the sharpest and most important critic of the new president and his policies.
Nowhere has this been clearer than on the issue of labor reform, arguably among the biggest land mines in the French political landscape. Workers here enjoy some of the most generous protections in the world, not to mention a labor market that vigorously defends the employee over the employer. In part, Macron was elected because of his promises to end many of these practices, nominally to stimulate growth in the euro zone’s second-largest economy and to curb the stagnant unemployment figures that have haunted France for years. The French unemployment rate is just over 9 percent.
Among the new president’s proposals — signed into law Friday — are provisions that would enable employers to hire and fire employees with greater ease. Even more so, smaller businesses — those with 50 employees or fewer — would be able to do so without union representation presiding over the contracts.
For Mélenchon, long a champion of social welfare, this is tantamount to an act of war — and possibly of treason. In his eyes, what Macron is seeking to change risks fundamentally altering what has always distinguished France from its neighbors. In response, Mélenchon has called a march on Paris for Saturday, his opening salvo as opposition leader.
“Up until the present, the French system had an originality extremely protective of workers,” Mélenchon told the French magazine Marianne in a wide-ranging conversation published this week. “The new worker’s law breaks all of this.”
Mélenchon generally refuses to discuss the labor law as a matter of policy. For him, it represents a historic rupture in the way a government considers and cares for its citizens. In his eyes, what is happening in the French Parliament is not the passage of a particular law but rather a “social coup d’état,” the “reversal of the hierarchy of social norms” by a man who won the presidency but with an insufficient mandate to govern.
If 66 percent of voters opted for Macron in the final round of the presidential vote, Mélenchon is fond of repeating, abstention was at a record high: 25 percent of voters stayed home, the largest such figure since 1969.
Macron, whom Mélenchon calls “a pure creature of the neoliberal system, a mixture of Blair and Thatcher,” ultimately has presided over a transformation marked by “brutality and the reduction of the democratic field,” he told Marianne.
“There is no European country where such violence has taken place,” he said in the interview.
Mélenchon and his representatives did not return several requests for comment.
Political analysts here see Mélenchon as a force with significant potential that extends far beyond the political discussions of the day. Perhaps the most important factor, most say, is his striking popularity among younger voters, not unlike that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the United States.
In the presidential election, Mélenchon won the lion’s share of support among voters age 18 to 24, with 30 percent. Macron, by contrast, won just 18 percent of that demographic.
On a structural level, Mélenchon benefited from the collapse of France’s Socialist Party, which for the first time in decades was unable to field a candidate for the final round of the election. The party, once a powerhouse of French and European politics, won only 30 seats in Parliament this year. Mélenchon has filled that void, analysts say.
“There is simply no other figure on the left,” said Gérard Grunberg, an expert on the French Socialist Party and an emeritus political scientist at Sciences Po, a leading French university. “Most French couldn’t tell you who is in charge of the socialists today, and the communists no longer exist.”
On the other side of the aisle, the far-right National Front, which challenged Macron for the Elysee Palace, likewise has continued to implode — a reality that some say will only expand Mélenchon’s potential.
For Gilles Finchelstein, director of the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a Paris-based think tank with ties to the Socialist Party and to Macron’s campaign, Mélenchon’s hard line also has earned him a key advantage.
“The European left is in crisis in part because the traditional electorate — the workers — have feared that parties have made too many compromises,” he said.
At this point, even some of France’s largest and most important labor unions have conceded that a few of Macron’s labor reforms are necessary. But not Mélenchon.
“The people must descend on Paris to defend against the social coup d’état, against the anti-democratic coup d’état being launched against them,” he yelled during a recent speech in Marseille, before a cheering crowd of thousands.
That march on Paris, Grunberg said, will determine whether a man without a sizable party structure behind him can prove that he is what he says he is: the candidate of the people, who can summon the masses into the street on a moment’s notice.
“We will have to wait and see,” he said.