Thirty thousand were expected. In the end as many as 120,000 turned out in Paris in support of presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to deliver a ‘revolutionary battle cry’ in a campaign that is turning into a plebiscite of capitalism.
‘Spirit of the Bastille, we are back, the people of France’s revolutions and rebellions,’ Mélenchon said before a crowd of cheering supporters, stretching across Bastille square and into the surrounding streets.
‘We are here today because we want to turn this election into a citizens’ insurrection that will start at the ballot box and trigger the popular revolution we need to profoundly change the lives of a suffering people,’ he said.
The marchers, waving banners demanding a VIth republic and proclaiming a popular ‘thirst for justice’, wound their way from Place de la Nation to Bastille, the symbol of the despotic Bourbon monarchy that was stormed in the 1789 Revolution. Members of the French Communist Party, who are allied with Mélenchon for the election, were out en masse, but the gathering had also attracted many other supporters from the Left.
The parade-like march featured flat-bed trucks blasting music, bright red balloons and flags. Among the marchers were workers from some high profile symbols of France’s economic crisis, like steelworks ArcelorMittal of Florange, a factory threatened with closure.
This is by far the largest rally yet held by Mélenchon, who has been drawing big crowds in local campaigning, for example, 4,500 in the industrial centre of Besançon, 10,000 in Lyon, 10,000 in Montpellier and 8,000 in Clermont-Ferrand.
Mélenchon’s Left Front, a coalition of radical left parties including the Communists, has been rising in the polls in recent weeks, eroding Hollande’s voter base and pushing the mainstream Socialist into more radical territory.
Hollande’s calls for top earners to pay 75% of their income in tax, for example, is a clear response to pressure from its left (Melenchon’s platform calls for a cap on annual revenue at €340,000 euros, with any earnings above that to be confiscated by the state.)
As for right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, he promised upon election in 2007 a Margaret Thatcher-style attack on the country’s unions and a pro-market shake-up of the economy to make it more like the United States. But he’s being judged on soaring unemployment and a meltdown in manufacturing. And he’s facing a backlash against corporate excess amid rising poverty and inequality.
With an obvious eye to Mélenchon, Sarkozy made the fight against outsourcing a key plank of his campaign and started to pepper his speeches with references to the mental anguish experienced by the unemployed. He has also said that if re-elected he would change the law to give workers seats on company boards so they could oversee executive pay, as well as end golden handshakes.
To which Melenchon responded in his blog: ‘This is a bad joke… obviously it will change nothing because the shareholder’s decision will take precedence….In the face of such greed, laws and taxes are the only effective response.’
Mélenchon, who is now in double-digits in the polls, has successfully articulated the anger of voters and made some in Socialist candidate Francois Hollande’s camp nervous. Hollande, who leads most polls, has encouraged voters to unite behind him from the first round of the two-round election to send the strongest message possible to the right.
But many of Mélenchon’s supporters said Sunday that Hollande didn’t go far enough and that they would use their first-round vote to express that. How many of those supporters then switch to Hollande’s camp in the second round and how many instead abstain could have an important impact on the election, say pundits.
Mélenchon, whose radicalism and imaginative use of language has led to accusations of populism from critics, electrified a crowd that had marched to the Bastille.
He said: “Today we need, in this France disfigured by social, territorial, cultural and gender inequality, to turn the page again on the Ancien Regime, to start a new chapter, that will allow us … to re-found the republic, to re-found France itself.”
In a typically anti-capitalist speech, Mélenchon called for a higher minimum wage, more rights for workers and expressed sympathy for Greeks struggling under austerity measures, denouncing the misery imposed on them by the EU and IMF. His programme also includes a ban on lay-offs for companies that have paid dividends to shareholders, measures to make it unattractive to relocate industries to countries where the cost of labour is lower and new powers for workers ‘to pre-empt’ or ‘requisition’ plants faced with closure.
At the end of this speech, held on the anniversary of the 1871 Paris Commune, Mélenchon led the crowd in singing the Internationale.
In contrast to previous elections, the candidates of the two trotskyist parties are struggling at 1% , with the teacher Nathalie Artaud of Lutte ouvrière and worker Philippe Poutou of NPA lacking the profile and passion of predecessors Arlette Laguiller and Olivier Besancenot.
Also struggling are the Greens whose candidate Eva Joly, a former anti-corruption magistrate, is languishing at 2%, in part because she has been seen as neglecting environmental issues in favour of a more middle-of-the-road left platform just as Mélenchon has been upping his ecologist credentials.
The latest IFOP survey for Journal du Dimanche on Sunday showed Mélenchon gaining 11% in the first round vote on April 22, up from 6% in January. It showed Hollande slipping back to 27% from 28%, and gave Sarkozy the lead in the first round vote with 27.5%, up from 26%.
Polls show Hollande would still soundly beat Sarkozy in a second round runoff in May.
And for French speakers check out these two videos: