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PARIS — Jean-Luc Mélenchon was on the verge of sending Marine Le Pen to retirement.
For a few hours Sunday night, the far-left leader of France Unbowed was only 0.8 percentage points from overtaking his far-right rival and heading to a second-round face-off with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Then the dust settled, the votes were tallied and Mélenchon soon realized he’d have to settle for a consolation prize: kingmaker.
There’s only one problem. It’s not clear that Mélenchon or his supporters really want to appoint a king.
While Mélenchon himself is a staunch Le Pen opponent, there has long been an overlap between his voters and the far-right leader’s followers, something the veteran politician is acutely aware of. Both him and Le Pen have campaigned on cost of living, targeting voters who have felt sidelined by globalization and who increasingly resent Macron’s economically liberal agenda.
In admitting defeat late Sunday, Mélenchon — unlike several other losing candidates from mainstream parties — pointedly avoided telling his followers to back Macron on April 24. The farthest he would go was simply imploring them to “not give a single vote” to Le Pen.
That might mean voting for Macron. It also might mean doing nothing.
According to an Ifop poll on Sunday, 44 percent of Mélenchon backers may abstain in the second round — the highest amount in the poll of any candidate who fell short on Sunday. Among the rest, a third would back Macron, while nearly a quarter would go for Le Pen. The survey fits with a recent Ipsos poll that showed half of Mélenchon’s voters without a preference between Le Pen and Macron, and the rest breaking 31 to 18 percent in Macron’s favor.
While the far-left candidate wants to block the far right and is closer to Macron on some major issues like renewable energy development, his anti-EU, anti-NATO and isolationist stances also share some themes with Le Pen’s message.
Mélenchon’s advisers say it’s now up to Macron to woo the France Unbowed crowd.
The French president “holds responsibility for the success of the far right today,” said Adrien Quatennens, a French lawmaker and Mélenchon’s campaign coordinator. Now, he added, Macron must “do what is necessary” to win over Mélenchon adherents.
Macron has already hinted Monday that he was ready to boost his platform when it comes to environmental issues in an apparent bid to seduce green-minded voters, including Mélenchon’s.
In his third run for president, Mélenchon surprised many Sunday with his stronger than expected third-place finish, scoring 21.9 percent of the vote, trailing only Le Pen at 23.4 percent and Macron at 27.6 percent.
The former Socialist surged late in a campaign he technically launched in 2020, preaching his Euroskeptic vision as an alternative to the Socialist Party that has long dominated French politics. He vowed to construct a new constitution, freeze oil prices and legalize euthanasia. Mélenchon also skirted around pro-Russian stances from his past that were mostly cloaked in hostility toward the U.S.
Mélenchon’s success cuts against the trend in other parts of Europe, particularly in Germany, where left-leaning voters have gravitated more to Socialist and green parties.
“There is now a radical, populist right with Le Pen, a liberal pool with Macron, and the left is concentrated on Mélenchon and his France Unbowed,” said Matthieu Gallard, a research director at Ipsos, the French polling institute. “Does it mean that left-wing voters voted Mélenchon? I am not certain. It was a tactical vote, and a vote on social and economic matters.”
In a speech after the final results came in, Mélenchon spoke of “the violence of disappointment” over his defeat. “But at the same time, how can one hide from the pride of the accomplished work?” he asked. “There is now a hub for the people … If we weren’t there, what would be left?”
Not only did Mélenchon wipe out the conservative Les Républicains, which finished third in France’s last presidential election, he far outpaced Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor and Socialist candidate, who tallied a mere 1.74 percent. He also easily beat Yannick Jadot, the Green candidate, who failed to reach 5 percent.
Those three defeated candidates immediately encouraged their supporters to turn to Macron and prevent Le Pen from reaching higher office. On the right, ex-TV pundit and anti-immigrant polemicist Eric Zemmour told his 7 percent of voters to back Le Pen in the second round.
Then there was Mélenchon, who refused to explicitly endorse Macron.
“The fight continues,” he vowed.
Observers said Mélenchon galvanized people with his campaign platform, dubbed “another world is possible.”
His ideas on improving the cost of living and modernizing society struck a chord among many of France’s disenchanted, especially his proposals to raise salaries and curb inflation through energy price caps, as well as calls to legalize marijuana and abolish prostitution. He also proposed adding a “green rule” to the constitution that would force people to “not collect more from nature than what it can re-grow.”
And voters apparently did not consider Mélenchon’s anti-EU and anti-NATO stances a no-go. The candidate said he wants France to opt out of some EU rules and withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command. On the war in Ukraine, Mélenchon said he was against sending weapons to Ukraine and once described the “ports of Crimea,” a region Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as “vital for the security of Russia.”
The results showed the France Unbowed leader gaining ground in France’s overseas territories and big cities. He won an absolute majority in the French islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana, where many residents protested regulations imposing a COVID vaccine pass for certain activities. According to Le Parisien, he gathered 31 percent of the votes in French cities with more than 100,000 residents.
Mélenchon also benefited in the final weeks of his campaign from last-minute endorsements, including from Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister who won an unofficial French left primary before later withdrawing.
However, Gallard noted that Mélenchon’s rise since the 2017 election did not prevent France Unbowed from losing ground elsewhere in France as it competed against other left-wing forces. It is also unclear whether Mélenchon, who is 70, will run again in 2027 and if the party can survive a leadership switch.
Sunday’s results also illustrated the fractures within France’s left, which has been incapable of coalescing under one banner. In addition to the poor showing of the Greens and the Socialists, the communist candidate, Fabien Roussel, only got 2.3 percent of the votes, and two other far-left candidates, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, each finished under 1 percent.
“Mélenchon campaigned on the cost of living and that’s above all what motivates people,” said Gallard. “Among left-wing forces, his radical hub is structured and stronger, while the others are divided.”
Louise Guillot and Victor Jack contributed reporting.