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No one was more outraged than Jean-Luc Mélenchon when, in 2014, the Montreal studio of video-game maker Ubisoft depicted the French Revolution as a bloodbath in an instalment of its hit Assassin's Creed series. Mr. Mélenchon, then just another firebrand far-left politician, took particular issue with the "monstrous" portrayal of his personal hero Robespierre, best known for unleashing the Reign of Terror that cost countless suspected counter-revolutionaries their heads.

"I'm sickened by this propaganda," Mr. Mélenchon told Le Figaro at the time. "The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job that seeks to instill the French people with even more self-disgust and a sense of decline."

No French politician does contempt and outrage quite like Mr. Mélenchon. And his talent for skewering the country's governing elites as lapdogs of the pro-European barons of capitalism has suddenly yielded big dividends among a French electorate that's had it up to here with the status quo.

Mr. Mélenchon, a former Socialist senator who now heads up France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France), is the revelation of the French presidential election campaign. He is the only top-tier candidate to have gained ground in recent weeks, doubling his support in the polls and threatening all of his rivals in Sunday's first round. A final-ballot duel of populist extremes – with Mr. Mélenchon facing off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen – is a distinct possibility.

That frightening prospect has prompted outgoing Socialist President François Hollande to warn voters not be fooled by the simplistic solutions Mr. Mélenchon proposes. "There is a danger with regard to simplifications and falsifications in that one watches the performance of the orator rather than the content of his speech," he told Le Point magazine last week.

Mr. Hollande is widely reported to be quietly backing Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who quit the President's cabinet to create his own political movement.

That has only fuelled more infighting among Socialists, whose official standard-bearer, Benoît Hamon, risks seeing what's left of his supporters rush to Mr. Mélenchon on Sunday in a bout of strategic voting.

And it's far from clear if the deeply unpopular Mr. Hollande's veiled endorsement helps Mr. Macron either. "I don't even call that the left any more," Mr. Mélenchon said dismissively of Mr. Hollande's call to arms. "Those in power have betrayed themselves in every possible way."

And what does this 65-year-old admirer of Lenin, Trotsky, Fidel Castro, and late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez promise instead?

Mr. Mélenchon gives new meaning to the term tax-and-spend. He vows to slap a 90-per-cent tax rate on those earning more than 20 times the median income, or about €400,000 ($578,000). He would increase government spending by €270-billion, including a €100-billion immediate stimulus package to tackle the "ecological and social emergency" he says France faces. He would unleash a wave of nationalizations.

His fiscal pledges would blow France's deficit and debt out of the water, violating European Union rules that limit deficits among euro zone countries to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. No problem, Mr. Mélenchon insists. He'd negotiate a French exemption. If that fails, he'd hold a Frexit referendum to pull France out of the EU altogether.

He'd also have France join, wait for it, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America, or ALBA, created by Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro to link Latin America's socialist-led economies, even though French trade with ALBA countries is virtually non-existent. That would put France in dubious company. Iran and Syria have observer status within ALBA.

In fact, Mr. Mélenchon is a pro-Russia demagogue who blames the five-year-old Syrian civil war on President Bashar al-Assad's bid to block pipelines aimed at easing European dependence on Russian oil and gas, rather than on Mr. al-Assad's suppression of anti-government uprisings during the Arab Spring.

Except for the idealistic young people backing him, it's hard not to attribute Mr. Mélenchon's populist surge to an utter sense of abandonment among forgotten French voters who see only more of the same old self-serving politician discourse in Mr. Macron, a former investment banker who offers bromides about French renewal, or François Fillon, the centre-right candidate who has spent a life in politics padding his own pockets. It's easy to see why a working-class French voter might prefer Mr. Mélenchon or Ms. Le Pen over either of these two.

Easy, but scary.