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Picnicking with Melenchon

Barbara Wesel
April 18, 2017

In the final week of the French election campaign, Jean-Luc Melenchon is summoning up his last reserves of strength. With him, the far left has a chance of winning the first ballot. Barbara Wesel reports from Toulouse.

Frankreich | Präsidendschaftskandidat Jean-Luc Melenchon in Toulouse
Image: Reuters/R. Duvignau

Jean-Luc Melenchon uses his charm to amuse, captivate and convince a crowd. That is how he became the king of the polls after the televised debates. Many people see him as an exceptional campaigner.

On this sunny Sunday afternoon on the banks of the Garonne River, he effortlessly skips across the stage like a boxer as he addresses the several thousand people who have joined his "political picnic." Only the food is missing. In France, people do not usually sit on the grass to eat sandwiches. Security staff confiscated all the bottles at the entrance, so Melenchon was left with the task of winning over the crowd. It was the last opportunity for the independent presidential candidate to get people excited about his left-socialist vision of France, which his opponents label "communist."

The French presidential campaign lasts until Friday. Then, the people must decide which two candidates will vie for the presidency in the May runoff. People all over France, not just the traditionally left-leaning Toulouse, are understandably awaiting the outcome of the first ballot with bated breath.

Wahlkampf Mélenchon
Chaibi: 'The game is not over yet'Image: DW/B.Wesel

Hoping for a victory

"The game is not over yet; it can still be won," says Leila Chaibi. She is one of the activists who took part in the "Nuit debout" ("Up All Night") demonstrations last year in Paris. Together with other young French people, she is fighting against Socialist incumbent Francois Hollande's labor market reforms. In the autumn of 2016, she quit her job at a property management company in a suburb of Paris and has been working for Melenchon's election campaign ever since.

"We are now in the final phase," says Chaibi enthusiastically. "We are fighting for the voters who voted for Francois Hollande last time." She fully backs Melenchon's fundamental political and economic restructuring policies. "They are less militant than in 2012," she says. In the presidential election five years ago, Melenchon only received 11 percent of the vote. At the moment, polls have him at 20 percent. "Most of all, we support young people, owners of small shops and workers," explains Chaibi. Does France, the second largest economy in the European Union, want a political revolution? To Chaibi, the answer to this question is self-evident. "Nine million live below the poverty line; 10 percent of them are unemployed," she says.

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Many people turned up for Melenchon's 'political picnic, even if not all of them agreed with his politicsImage: DW/B.Wesel

Eric Conquerel, one of Melenchon's leading campaign managers, defends the legitimacy of his candidate's economic policies. "We want to put an end to austerity. It is a Keynesian policy. Billions in investments in the public sector lead to work, rising wages and more consumption. In the end, they pay for themselves." Investments in environmental protection and social welfare have been proposed. But where will the money come from? "From the banks," replies Conquerel. In principle, he is advocating a redistribution of wealth; however, details are fuzzy. Conquerel just sweeps further questions aside.

Against Merkel's Europe, NATO and the rest of the world

On the large stage, Jean-Luc Melenchon entertains his audience. "Do you want a life with less work?" The audience shouts "Yes!" in response, and even chants "stop, stop" whenever financial capitalism, neo-liberalism and other demons of the left are mentioned. At the same time, Melenchon stresses the differences between him and his right-wing opponent Marine Le Pen. However, he too, is campaigning to leave the EU, but says he wants to at least try to renegotiate the treaties.

Wahlkampf Melenchon
'Change or leave Merkel's Europe? Out of the European treaties'Image: DW/B.Wesel

If this does not work, he claims that France can establish stronger international ties with countries in Africa and Latin America. In this way, Melenchon is following the tradition of communist pioneer Karl Marx, who propagated the transnational unification of the working classes. The conservative newspaper "Le Figaro" took a jab at Melenchon in a recent headline which referred to Venezuela's deceased left-wing president, writing: "Melenchon: The Insane Program of the French Chavez."

Also like Le Pen, Melenchon wants to pull France out of NATO. He raves about world peace without arms, yet he does not shy away from attacking his opponents verbally: "If Francois Fillon, who loves well-cut jackets, calls me a communist, then we can have the electorate sew him a jacket by hand." He nails that one. The comment is directed at the conservative presidential candidate who accepted custom-made suits from his supporters worth thousands of euros.

Undecided in Toulouse

On the riverbank sit Amaury, Simon and Paul, a group of friends who work at a start-up company. Paul, who openly supports Melenchon, is less convinced by his policies and more by the idea that France must be restructured. "A better distribution of wealth and another economic model would be good," he says. It would be worth a try. Amaury, on the other hand, finds that the socialist politician is going too far. He says that it is clear that things must change, but that he would by no means vote for Melenchon. Simon just shrugs his shoulders. He is attending the event to form his own opinion, but has still not decided on a candidate. That puts him among the roughly 30 percent of the electorate that remains undecided.

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Simon (right), an undecided voter, came to hear Melenchon speakImage: DW/B.Wesel

In the meantime, Melenchon advocates the end of the presidential system, a sixth republic and a constitutional change for France. After about an hour, the first audience members start leaving. "Young people have no stamina anymore; it is only enough for a tweet," rails an older member of the audience. Yet Melenchon's success can mainly be attributed to voters between the ages of 18 and 30, thanks to the expert social media team that skillfully maintains his blog, YouTube channel and Twitter account.

The two young engineers Juliette and Remy still do not know for whom they will cast their ballots. While enthusiastic supporters wave their blue, white and red flags near the stage, Juliette and Remy prefer to stand further back. They are not convinced by Melenchon. "I like a few of his positions - for example, feminism and social policies," says Juliette. But she does not at all want to leave the EU and considers his economic policies to be nonsense. "We certainly will not vote for him, but for whom?" she asks. Both of them, like many other people in the crowd, are worried that they will only have a choice between extremes in the runoff. This could happen if after the first round only the left-wing Melenchon and the right-wing Le Pen remain. In that scenario, Remy fears that "France would descend into chaos."