The veteran socialist has surged in the French presidential polls. But his politics arrive laden with unsavoury baggage that cant easily be discarded

With Frances general elections on Sunday being so wholly unpredictable, the danger of Marine Le Pen is real but so is the danger of another brand of polarising, revolutionary and destructive populism. It is found on the far left, with the ascendancy of Jean-Luc Mlenchon.

Some progressives have taken to describing the 65 -year-old former senator and former junior Socialist minister as the new embodiment of a rejuvenation of the left. That Mlenchon has managed to gain in the polls to the point of perhaps being able to reach the presidential run-off is certainly no small accomplishment. But to believe that his campaign stands for an attractive, socially minded and more democratic or alternative Europe is delusional.

Mlenchon is essentially a nationalist, despite his internationalist credo. And his pities for autocratic strongmen such as Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chvez cannot be easily swept aside, as if these were just blunders in an otherwise promising platform. If you believe that the European project must be salvaged and improved rather than dismantled, Mlenchon actually cannot be your man. Not if you seem closely.

To be sure, hes having a good operate. Unfamiliarity helps. Many outside France and within it , notably among young people have only recently discovered him. Hes managed to capitalise on some of the rage that animates much of the electorate: hes apparently even stealing referendums from Le Pen. The French are depleted by decades of high unemployment, theyre profoundly distrustful of the political class, and theyre worried about an unpredictable international environment.

Mlenchon is a talented orator. His fiery rhetoric in speeches and savvy, quickfire remarks in recent television debates have helped his numbers surge. One of his slogans is degagisme , which are able to translate as kick them out targeting the rest of the political class. He likes to quote Maximilien Robespierre and Victor Hugo. He casts himself as a hero of the people ( les gens ), a single, homogeneous entity, set against the creation. His frequent references to the revolution of 1789, to French socialist hero Jean Jaurs and to three-times “ministers ” Lon Blum have buoyed voters hankering for lyricism, or a dosage of nostalgia. And there is no doubt that Mlenchon wants Le Pen to be defeated.

Jean-Luc Mlenchon casts himself as a hero of the people, a single, homogeneous entity, set against the establishment. But there is more to him than a crusade for social justice. Photo: Charles Platiau/ Reuters

But there is more to him than a crusade for social justice. Hold his anti-German narrative. In a tense country like todays France, old antagonisms are to be able to be reactivated. In his 2015 volume Bismarcks Herring( The German Poison ), Mlenchon wrote that Germany is again a danger, its imperialism is returning, and the EU is its new empire.

Hes described Germans as grumbling Teutons who seek to deport their old people to eastern Europe or Thailand. And hes written that German expansionism was at work in the countrys 1990 reunification an annexation of East Germany, in his terms. That in itself is no small rewriting of history, and no small refusal of a peoples freely expressed will after the fall of communism.

His criticism of Angela Merkels eurozone policies goes far beyond the economic. It peddles nationalistic, if not bigoted, hatreds. He may have tried to soften that impression by saying he wants the peoples of Europe to revolt against their governments and not start to fight among themselves. But he has hardly backtracked on any of his earlier statements. Much of this echoes and amplifies Le Pens rhetoric, rather than helping to combat it.

Mlenchons criticism of Angela Merkels eurozone policies echoes and amplifies the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen( left) rather than helping to combat it. Photograph: Claude Paris/ AP

Which brings us back to Putin: a hero of Le Pens Front National and a constant focus of Merkels fears over the future of the continent. Mlenchon has no particular liking for Putins autocracy( although in 2015 he preferred to criticise Boris Nemtsov, an opposition figure assassinated that year in Moscow, rather than blamed Putin for anything ). But what is most striking about the far-left leader is how hes systematically refrained from ascribing any responsibility to Russia over the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea , not to mention the killing fields of Syria. Merely the west is ever held guilty for anything. This hasnt changed, even after chemical weapons were used this month and Russia vetoed a UN-sponsored investigation into the crime.

Mlenchons rallying cry of peace on Earth voices laudable, but his success would have severe consequences for Europe. Pulling France out of Nato and out of EU treaties, which he wants, would unravel Europes architecture. It would mean a leap into the unknown , not unlike that advocated by Le Pen. His radical economic policies would kill any hope of reforming eurozone governance. Meanwhile, his vision of international relations in which Russias revisionism over European borders and the Syrian dictators mass killing of his own citizens hardly get a mention, whereas western democracies are constantly critiqued smackings of moral disarray, and much worse.

Nor is Mlenchon as refugee-friendly as some would like to think. Hes suggested that hed prefer to see 10,000 doctors settle in France rather than a wave of huddled masses. Ive never been in favour of freedom of arrival, hes said. Hes also on record accusing some foreign workers of stealing their bread from French workers. There is much more of Italys firebrand populist Beppe Grillo about him than Spains Podemos.

As the rightwing press dubs him Frances would-be Chvez, his charisma protects him. But charisma cannot address so many fretting traits. Hankering for a citizens uprising and questioning the institutions is one thing, but Mlenchons politics arrive laden with baggage that cant easily be discarded.

Victor Hugos observation that misery brings people to revolution, and revolution in turn brings them back to it, is well worth remembering as France prepares to vote. A selection between Le Pen and Mlenchon in the presidential run-off on 7 May is very likely to lead to record low turnout and unprecedented gains for the far right. Those who admire from afar should maintain that in mind. And those seduced to follow Mlenchons route towards the crumbling of the old order need to be careful what they wish for.

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