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PROFILE: Who is France’s ‘sagacious tortoise’ Jean-Luc Mélenchon?

Divisive but charismatic, French hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has gone from angrily quitting France's Socialist Party to standing at the head of a rare alliance of the historically fragmented left.

PROFILE: Who is France's 'sagacious tortoise' Jean-Luc Mélenchon?
French leftist movement La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

The 70-year-old former senator, who describes himself as “eruptive” for his passionate outbursts, has made his La France Insoumise (France unbowed, known as LFI) movement the main left alternative both to President Emmanuel Macron and his defeated presidential run-off rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

This week, Mélenchon signed an alliance deal with the Greens, Communists and Socialists that puts him firmly in the driving seat on the left for June parliamentary elections.

READ ALSO What is France’s ‘left alliance’ and will it work?

And he is eyeing the job of prime minister if the left comes out on top in the elections, in what would a prickly “cohabitation” with the centrist Macron.

Mélenchon’s brand of anti-establishment politics has profited as the traditionally dominant Parti Socialiste (PS) collapsed following François Hollande’s widely-loathed 2012-17 presidency and the rise of the often polarising Macron.

For some in the PS, the party of former president François Mitterrand who ruled France from 1981-1995, it has been a bitter pill to swallow.

Party heavyweights have been reduced to fuming from the sidelines, with former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve quitting the PS after it approved the deal and Hollande making clear his discontent.

“It’s always rebels who help give birth to the future,” Mélenchon said before the first round of the presidential vote that saw him come a close third.

Born in Morocco, Mélenchon joined Parti Socialiste in 1976 at 25 after diving into Trotskyism as a student, going on to become the youngest member of France’s Senate in 1986.

He remains an admirer of Mitterrand, claiming that the “old man” told him shortly before his death to “never give in, walk your own path”.

After serving as vocational education minister under Socialist premier Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002, Melenchon broke with party leaders in 2005 to successfully oppose a proposed European Union constitution in a referendum vote.

At odds with then-party chief Hollande, he quit three years later to form his own movement, saying “our country needs another voice on the left”.

In a gradual catch-up that prompted Mélenchon to liken himself to a “sagacious tortoise”, he scored 11 percent in 2012’s presidential vote, 19.5 in 2017 and almost 22 this year – far ahead of PS candidate Anne Hidalgo’s humiliating score of below two percent.

His rise has been accompanied by a gradual change in style.

“My way of being is a signal. I’m sound and fury, just like my era… I’m headstrong,” Melenchon said in 2010.

But he sought in the 2022 election to moderate his style and reach out beyond his traditional far-left base, eschewing his trademark Chairman Mao-style jacket for snappy suits and ties.

But he says he is “grateful” when opponents dub him a populist, declaring: “I’m not with the people, I am from the people.”

The war in Ukraine has worsened a cost-of-living crisis for French working people that saw far-right boss Le Pen focus on purchasing power in the election campaign, rather than her traditional anti-immigrant message.

Opposition to Macron – widely perceived as a “president of the rich” – had already brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in sometimes-violent “yellow vest” protests triggered by a fuel tax rise, before the coronavirus pandemic came to overshadow the second half of his first term.

Mélenchon hopes to capitalise on still-simmering resentment for the legislative polls, vowing to cut the statutory retirement age to 60 years from 62, while Macron has announced plans to raise it to 65.

If the left secures enough votes to bounce Macron into naming him prime minister, Mélenchon would also immediately boost the minimum wage to a monthly €1,400 from around €1,250 now, and cap energy and food prices.

OPINION The left alliance is an optical illusion and Mélenchon will not be PM

He even secured agreement through gritted teeth from the other parties in his alliance to breach European Union rules on debt and deficits if needed to get their programme through.

“I’ve never felt as ready to govern as now,” Mélenchon told AFP last year.

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HEALTH

French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

After the seismic decision of the US Supreme Court on Friday, French MPs are calling for the right to abortion in France to be protected by the constitution.

French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

Lawmakers from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party are to propose a parliamentary bill on Saturday that would enshrine the right to abortion in the constitution. 

The move comes after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” decision on Friday.

“In France we guarantee and advance the rights of women. We protect them,” said Aurore Bergé – the head of Renaissance in the Assemblée nationale and one of the key sponsors of the bill. 

Another co-sponsor, Marie-Pierre Rixain tweeted: “What happens in elsewhere cannot happen in France. We must protect the right to abortion for future generations. 

In 2018 and 2019, Emmanuel Macron’s party – which back then was known as La République en Marche – refused to back bills proposed by left-wing party, La France Insoumise, to enshrine abortion rights into the constitution. 

In a Saturday interview with France Inter, Bergé suggested that the success of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National during parliamentary elections earlier this month had created a sense of newfound urgency. 

She described the far-right MPs as “fierce opponents of women’s access to abortion” and said it was important “to take no risk” in securing it. 

READ MORE France’s Macron condemns US abortion ruling

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has come out in support of the bill. 

The left-wing opposition block, NUPES, also backs it and had planned to propose an identical piece legislation of its own on Monday. 

Macron is seeking parliamentary allies to pass reforms after his formation lost its majority in legislative elections earlier this month.

The legal timeframe to terminate a pregnancy in France was extended from 12 to 14 weeks in the last legislature.

Changing the constitution requires the National Assembly and Senate to adopt the same text, then a three-fifths majority of parliament sitting in congress. The other option is a referendum.

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