Left-wing leader sees victory in French vote, himself as new prime minister

PARIS (AP) – Left-wing parties that had nearly disappeared from the French political landscape have gained wings in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections and are now threatening to weaken President Emmanuel Macron and his hopes of flinging his agenda through parliament.

An alliance of left-wing parties cobbled together by far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon is now rising in the polls. The “Melenchon Prime Minister” campaign poster no longer draws chuckles from detractors.

Commentators have yet to agree on the pronunciation of Nupes, the French acronym for alliance, the new popular ecological and social union. Melenchon simply calls it the People’s Union. It combines its party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), socialists, communists and greens.

“It’s amazing, so inspiring and motivating. The whole left wing is behind Melenchon,” said Michael Gorre, a 45-year-old computer scientist who attended a coalition meeting in Paris last week. “It feels good to have someone who talks about concrete things.”

Macron, a centrist, has made it clear that he is the only one to appoint the prime minister, although in practice his choice will be determined by the outcome of the election, which will not be known until the second round on June 19. So if Nupes wins a majority, he would probably pick someone from the coalition, but it might not be Melenchon.

Macron won a second mandate in April’s presidential election and is now seeking an absolute majority – 289 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house – to quickly pass legislation. Among the laws on his radar is his controversial decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. Melenchon, meanwhile, wants to lower it to 60.

70-year-old Melenchon’s bold bid to be named head of government is symptomatic of France’s shattered political landscape. Traditional mainstream parties such as the Socialists and the Conservative Right Republicans slipped from voters’ radar after losing in previous elections. Three blocs emerged: Melenchon’s far left, Marine Le Pen’s far right, and Macron’s centrists, who warn of “the extremes”.

Melenchon’s alliance is battling for the lead with Macron’s centrists in polls. Nupes topped one poll this week, albeit within the margin of error. Le Pen, who lost to Macron in the presidential election, came in third.

Le Pen is well aware that her anti-immigration National Rally party cannot compete with Melenchon’s alliance under the current voting system.

In calls to get out of the ballot, Le Pen is asking supporters to help her party get as many delegates as possible in “last chance elections” to block the French president’s highway to unbridled power.

Unlike Melenchon’s bid to become prime minister, Le Pen’s more modest goal is to form a parliamentary faction to gain more speaking time and other benefits. This requires at least 15 legislators. Her party won just eight seats in 2017.

“Jean-Luc Melenchon will never become prime minister. He’s lying to the French… a few days before his retirement,” Le Pen tweeted mockingly during a campaign trip Thursday to the southern seaside resort of Agde. She referred to his decision not to try to renew his parliament seat while she campaigns to keep hers.

A cunning politician with an oratorical gift, Melenchon was long a figure on the French left, first in the Socialist Party and as a senator. But it wasn’t until 2016, when he founded the left-wing party France Unbowed, that his profile matched his ambitions.

Melenchon’s call for social justice draws many voters, including Christelle Baker, 32, who sees his alliance as a helpline for her autistic brother.

“Nupes stands for social justice and … themes like the health system, the environment, education or the situation of the disabled,” Baker said at a packed theater at the Paris rally. “We may not win, but we can have a large fraction. We can have our word to say.”

Melenchon’s alliance would raise minimum wages, along with salaries in many sectors, and nationalize airports and highways. He criticizes ‘neoliberalism and the financialized economy’.

“Foreign commentators,” he said at the Paris event last week, “if you want to know what France is, it is this: liberty, equality, fraternity and social welfare.”

For Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, Melenchon is the ‘Gaul Chavez’. That reference to former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, known for his socialist revolution, has stuck with the man who seems to enjoy controversy.

Melenchon caused his latest uproar by tweeting last weekend that “police kills” after the death of a female passenger in a car that police fired at bicycles when it refused to stop for a check.

Macron’s view of Melenchon is that his views are extreme. “Nothing is more dangerous than adding to the world disorder the French disorder represented by the extremes,” he told the French press during a visit to the Tarn region on Thursday.

The day before, a crowd of cheering children surrounded the president, one jumping into his arms, during a visit to the impoverished Seine-Saint-Denis region outside Paris. A young girl asked where Melenchon was and said, “I want Melenchon to win.”

The president told her Melenchon wasn’t there, then added, “I don’t want him to win, you see, in the legislature. Otherwise I can do nothing.”

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