Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the French Newt Gingrich

It seems America has finally discovered its allergy to a certain type of political nut.

As Mitt Romney’s painfully slow but ultimately unwavering journey to the Republican presidential nomination reaches its apogee, Gingrich’s campaign is effectively done, dusted and finissimo. The great nut of American party politics is no more. Amen to that.

Now, the election will be about two mainly mainstream candidates, with no radicals such as Gingrich. The same – however – cannot be said for France’s presidential election.

Few outside France will know of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Fewer still have heard of his party “Front Gauche” (left front), or his electoral policies. So, let me offer some insight: Mélenchon is possibly the most economically deranged and politically dangerous of any French presidential candidates. Indeed, if you thought Gingrich was politically mad, bad, and dangerous to know, then Mélenchon is a hundred times worse.

Essentially, Mélenchon, is a 62 year-old radical left firebrand. He manages to differentiate himself from the rest of the candidates by marrying the sublime and the ridiculous, with vacuous and economically suicidal policies.

He says he will remove France from NATO and the EU. Then he promises to not cut any public spending, but actually increase it exponentially. He promised that he will increase the already generous social structures in France, at a cost to be borne by future taxes. He specifically outlines comprehensive nationalization of banks; collectives of workers owning all businesses in France; and a personal income cap of 360,000 euros (all income above this would be taxed at 100%). It’s enough to make most seasoned economists choke on their cornflakes several times over.

One would therefore expect Mélenchon to be trailing in the polls, ignored by the media as a crypto-Marxist and spurned by the electorate in search of serious solutions. After all, no serious politician — even in Europe — can believe that the answer to economic problems, is widespread nationalization, income caps and unfettered state spending?

Au contraire. Mélenchon is actually polling in third-place and his rallies are packed with supporters. He may even hold the key to François Hollande’s election victory, drawing away supporters from the Socialist Party, thereby handing the Elysée to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mélenchon’s success lies partly in his fiery rhetoric and slick presentation, but it’s also more than that. Last week, The Economist ran a feature on France, arguing no politician was seeking to address the monumental economic iceberg the country is headed towards. There must be serious cuts in public spending if France is to avoid a fate such as Greece’s — but no candidate in this election has sought to address this. It has largely been a silent issue in a very vocal campaign.

Into this vacuum sauntered Mélenchon, who has now defined himself as the alternative economic guru. He tells the French that not only can they keep their economic croissant, but they can eat, enjoy and relax with it on a nice terrace overlooking a picturesque vista. The lure is too much for some segments of France’s electorate, largely disenchanted with the political mainstream. They believe steadfastly in his ersatz vision.

So, whereas Gingrich is isolated, with very little influence over anything beyond what he orders for breakfast every morning; Mélenchon – France’s Gingrich – stands on the cusp of being instrumental in an election that has strayed beyond the realms of reality into a phenomenal farce.

It has yet to be seen whether Mélenchon will have any effect over the outcome of the election — with less than two weeks to go until polling day, many French people have yet to make up their minds. However, it may be that in a few months France will rue not having that very American allergy to a very particular kind of political nut.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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