French Presidential Election, 2017: Marine Le Pen Vs Jean-Luc Mélenchon [Opinion]

The French presidential election of 2017 pits Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far right National Front, against three other leading candidates: establishment liberal Emmanuel Macron, establishment conservative François Fillon and leftist insurgent Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Le Pen is not expected to win a majority of the vote in the French presidential election, but neither are any of the other candidates. The most likely eventual winner of the election is Emmanuel Macron – according to Fortune, polls show him at 24 percent to Le Pen’s 21.5 percent. Without an absolute majority, the top two candidates in the first round of the election will go on to a second run-off vote on May 7, which Macron is likely to win with around 60 percent of the total.

If the past year tells us anything at all, it’s that the “most likely” outcome cannot be counted on. Mélenchon is currently polling just behind Marine Le Pen at 19 percent, and his numbers have been improving rapidly. If the top two candidates in the first round turn out to be Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French presidential election will come down to a referendum on two very different forms of “populism.”

Le Pen’s version of populism is based on looking back and turning inward. Her platform includes a ban on immigration into France, French withdrawal from the European Union and its currency and a ban on the practice of veiling by Muslim women in France. If Marine Pen wins the French presidential election, France will be governed by a political ally of Donald Trump.

Le Pen’s policies appeal to those who are angry and frightened by recent terrorist attacks, as well as by those who want to return to an earlier, whiter and more Catholic France. Founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front has long been considered a party for those with “fascist tendencies” according to an editorial in the Atlantic.

Riot police armed with shields and batons stand near a poster of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
French riot police on alert beside a poster of Marine Le Pen.

Long before this particular presidential election, Marine Le Pen has been trying to distance herself from her father’s open anti-Semitism and recreate the National Front as a respectable political party for those concerned about immigration and terrorism. However, these changes are more about appearances than reality. Le Pen forgot herself just this month and argued publicly that the collaborationist Vichy government bears no moral responsibility for rounding up Jewish people on behalf of the Nazis, as reported by Fortune.

The French political establishment loves to compare Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, just as the American establishment loved to say that Bernie Sanders was really no different from Donald Trump because both were “populists.” However, Mélenchon’s version of populism involves a completely different vision from Le Pen’s. Mélenchon’s party is called La France Insoumise or “France Defiant,” and his platform is openly and defiantly leftist in a way that the French Socialist party has not been for a very long time.

As Mélenchon supporter Olivier Tonneau argues in the Guardian, the only real similarity between the platforms of the National Front and France Defiant is in their shared rejection of the trajectory Europe has been on for years now – austerity politics and corporate power. Le Pen’s solution to the disastrous effects of neoliberalism is to blame the mess on Muslim refugees and flee back to the way things used to be or some imaginary version of it. Mélenchon’s solution is to embrace democracy, in the broadest and most meaningful sense of the word.

Mélenchon promises to keep the borders open and to give undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. That’s a clear and unambiguous difference between Mélenchon and Le Pen. So why is he a “populist”? Because he promises to defy the dictates of the European Union, revive the French economy with a stimulus program and force the EU to renegotiate existing treaties. He also proposes to combat income inequality by capping the salaries of the highest-paid corporate officials at no more than 20 times the salary of their lowest-paid employees, and to replace France’s Fifth Republic with a Sixth Republic based on a new and more democratic constitution.

That may be populism, but it’s a populism based on equality and opportunity for ordinary people. It’s a populism that values human dignity over corporate profits, and it appeals to so many people because they can see for themselves that the policies of the mainstream French parties have not been working for them and should not be rewarded with victory in this presidential election.

The populism of Marine Le Pen’s National Front is based on the same xenophobic nationalism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that made the party infamous under her father Jean-Marie. Le Pen’s populism is a populism of pessimism and rejection, of retreat rather than improvement.

Campaign poster of Marine Le Pen with a Hitler mustache.
A poster of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen defaced by a Hitler-style mustache. [Image by Francois Mori /AP Images]

It may well be true that the next president of France will be Emmanuel Macron, but the French presidential election of 2017 will also be remembered as a contest between the visions of Marine Le Pen and Jean Luc Mélenchon. On Sunday 4/23, French voters will have the opportunity to decide: Mélenchon’s optimism, Le Pen’s pessimism or simply more of the same.

[Featured Image by Michel Euler/AP Images]