Who Is Jean-Luc Melenchon? Far-Left Leader Defiant After French Victory

(Bloomberg) -- It didn’t take Jean-Luc Melenchon long to seize the moment after initial poll indications of the French legislative vote showed the leftist New Popular Front was headed to a shock victory.

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Before other leaders of that alliance — which includes his own far-left France Unbowed, the Socialists and the Greens — could get a word in, Melenchon took center stage at a gathering of followers, demanding that it should be called on to govern the country. He also declared that the New Popular Front won’t entertain “combinations” and will refuse negotiations with other groups.

“The NFP will implement its program,” Melenchon told supporters Sunday. “Nothing but its program. All of its program.”

The alliance has promised a major increase in public spending, a boost to the minimum wage and a cut in the retirement age — measures that would provoke a major clash with the European Union. The Institut Montaigne estimates that the New Popular Front’s campaign pledges would require nearly €179 billion ($194 billion) in extra funds per year.

The leftist alliance won 178 seats in the National Assembly, according to data compiled by the Interior Ministry — still far short of the 289 required for an absolute majority. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which pollsters last week had seen winning the election, came third with 143, while President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance notched up 156.

On BFM TV, French Education Minister Nicole Belloubet was quick to point out that for all Melenchon’s claims to his party’s right to govern, the New Popular Front doesn’t have enough lawmakers to control parliament.

President Emmanuel Macron will wait for the National Assembly’s new configuration to be established before taking any decisions, the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

That may not stop markets and investors from being alarmed at the likelihood of the New Popular Front and someone like Melenchon governing France.

The 72-year-old fan of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro has long spooked markets and investors every time he’s come close to power.

Known for his fiery speeches, often without a teleprompter or notes and using his trademark mix of humor and anger, the Communist-backed far-left leader often regales crowds with the evils of “extreme markets that transform suffering, misery and abandonment into gold and money.” He has alluded in the past to France as a country “with huge wealth that is badly distributed.”

The son of a post office worker and a teacher, both descendants of Spaniards and Italians who emigrated to French Algeria at the turn of the century, Melenchon was born in Tangier, now Morocco, when it was an international zone.

He moved to France at the age of 11, studied philosophy, did various jobs including as a journalist and proofreader and got involved in Trotskyist politics. He joined the Socialist Party in 1976 at the age of 25, and was elected to various regional, national and European legislative positions.

Melenchon was deputy head of the Essonne region, south of Paris, from 1998 to 2004, and a junior minister in the Ministry of Education from 2000 to 2002. He broke with the Socialist party in 2008, saying it was becoming too business-friendly. In 2016, he founded France Unbowed and in 2022 he ran for president — for the third time.

And now, Melenchon has once again become someone to reckon with. Even if the alliance he’s a part of doesn’t have the votes to govern alone, it’s likely to demand new spending commitments from Macron in order to form a new administration.

(Updates with seat counts in fifth paragraph)

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