French Left candidate goes one-on-one with ultra-rightist

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Left Front’s candidate in the recent presidential elections in France, has announced that in the legislative elections on June 10 (with a runoff on June 7), he will run as a candidate in the 11th constituency district in the Pas de Calais region, on the French North Atlantic coast.  What makes this even more interesting is that he will be going head to head with Marine LePen, who was the candidate of the far right National Front.

The specific district, called Henin-Beaumont, which Mr. Melenchon has chosen to run in, has an interesting history. It is inward from the Atlantic coast and was heavily damaged by German incursions during the First World War. During the Second World War the Pas de Calais was occupied by the Germans, but had the good luck that it was chosen by the Allied command as the decoy to fool the Germans as to where the D-Day attacks would come.

Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt became convinced that the main allied landings would be in the Pas de Calais, so concentrated on defending that area. But of course the attacks came in on the Normandy beaches further west, reducing the damage to places like Henin-Beaumont.

Economically, the Henin-Beaumont area had depended on coal mining, but this has been in decline for a while, and there is now diversified light industry. Historically the left has had a healthy presence in the area, which Hervé Poly, the head of the Communist Party in the district calls “land of the left, which has seen communist deputies, socialist deputies, and tomorrow will see a deputy from the Left Front, that is our wish!”

In the 2009 local elections, the ultra-right wing, anti-immigrant National Front candidate won the mayoral election, with the left candidate second. In the runoff, an independent leftist was elected mayor with the support of all parties except the National Front.

In the first round of this year’s presidential elections, the eventual winner, the National Front’s Marine LePen got 35.48 percent of the vote, followed by the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande with 26.82 percent, President Sarkozy with 15.76 percent and Melenchon with 11.98 percent. In the presidential runoff, Hollande got 57.86 percent and Sarkozy 42.15 percent, Marine LePen’s father, Jean-Marie LePen, got 18.6 percent of the vote in Henin-Beaumont. So the National Front’s vote has doubled in the interim, showing a dangerous growth of the ultra-right.

Before Melenchon announced his candidacy, LePen had already announced hers for the same seat. Her program is viciously ultra-right wing, specializing as she does in blaming the country’s troubles on immigrants and Muslims.

During the presidential elections LePen, a dynamic campaigner and articulate if nasty public speaker, managed to get Sarkozy to issue his own threats against immigrants, and the victorious Socialist candidate, Hollande, even followed suit to a smaller degree. However, Melenchon, just as effective a campaigner as LePen if not more so, has remained rock-firm against this kind of demagogy. It is a safe bet that the Henin-Beaumont campaign will be full of fireworks, and that France’s immigrant communities will find a defender in Melenchon.

At writing, it appears that the Socialist Party will also have a candidate in Henin-Beaumont.

The overall national results of the June 10 and 17 elections are vitally important. If the Socialists, Communists and allies increase their representation, Hollande will be able to push forward his program of change, and of resistance to the austerity policies being pushed by the European right. If, on the other hand, the right and ultra-right pick up seats, he will have a hard time governing, let alone achieving changes in direction.

Currently, the breakdown in the National Assembly has Sarkozy’s right wing UMP and allies holding 344 of 577 seats. The left alliance of Socialists, Communists and allies holds 227. The National Front did not win any seats in 2007, but is almost sure to this time around given LePen’s result in the presidential election. So a defeat for LePen by the left in Henin-Beaumont would be of great symbolic importance.

Photo: Jean Luc Melenchon speaks with media.   Claude Paris/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.