Author : Not mentioned
Posted on : Economist | November 16th, 2017

The populist left and right offer more a whimper than a bang


“MAKE the most noise possible,” urged Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a radical-left politician, before a crowd this autumn. Saucepan-banging protesters would make a nationwide ruckus, he said, referring to a centuries-old method of protest known as les casserolades. They would tell Emmanuel Macron that his economic reforms “ruin our life and keep us from dreaming, so we stop you from sleeping”.In the event Mr Mélenchon disturbed nobody’s repose. At the appointed hour, at two locations in central Paris, just a handful of sheepish supporters from his France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) movement turned out. Other marches, against labour-law reforms, have been bigger, but achieved equally little. More nationwide protests were due on November 16th, involving unions and students, but looked unlikely to cause serious disruption.
For months Mr Mélenchon, despite having just 17 MPs, has in effect led opposition to Mr Macron, whom he calls a “president of the rich”. He tries to fill a void left by larger, poorly led, moderate parties. He condemns Mr Macron for cutting a wealth tax (it will apply only to property), even as housing benefit for the poor is trimmed. The president’s popularity has sagged.Yet the populist has not benefited: polls show his own support has also drooped a bit, from 19.6% at the election to 18%. He stirs core supporters, for example with a half-hour monologue on current affairs each week on YouTube. Youngsters like his down-to-earth style, just as their British counterparts swoon over Jeremy Corbyn. They also like his ties to populist movements such as Podemos, in Spain, and an old association with Hugo Chávez.
But Mr Mélenchon has not broadened his appeal, despite casting himself as a patriot—in place of red flags and choruses of the “Internationale”, his supporters wave the tricolour and sing “La Marseillaise”. To bolster his Eurosceptic reputation, he has campaigned to remove the EU flag from parliament, calling it “sectarian”. (He revives an old claim that its stars echo a symbol of the Virgin Mary.) That gains him coverage, but does not check Mr Macron. Philippe Marlière, a specialist in leftist politics at University College London, says Mr Mélenchon’s “hubris” and refusal to make allies render him ineffective.
Even Mr Mélenchon has conceded that Mr Macron has outplayed him and “for now, it’s he who has the advantage.” Still, it is better to underwhelm than collapse. Right-wing populists’ prospects are much gloomier. “For Marine Le Pen, I think it is over,” says Laurent Bouvet of Versailles University. The leader of the National Front (FN) has shown no sign of recovering from the run-off election, when Mr Macron brushed her aside by 66% to 34%. Her preoccupation with withdrawal from the euro was misjudged and she failed to exploit anxiety over “identity or immigration”, he says.
Since then, her position has only worsened. A newcomer in parliament, she has made no impression, leading just eight MPs. Her party is beset by bickering. In September her deputy, Florian Philippot, who had crafted a strategy of appealing to working-class voters, quit to lead his own group. Ms Le Pen may even change the name of her 45-year-old party. This week members were asked, in a rather desperate questionnaire, which policies should be dumped and whether to rebrand.

Ms Le Pen herself is beleaguered. France’s parliament this month removed her immunity from prosecution, letting investigative judges question her for tweeting graphic images of a murdered American journalist, James Foley. (Sharing violent images is illegal in France.) Earlier this year the European Parliament, where she also sat, lifted her immunity.Her 27-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (who is currently taking a break from politics), could eventually step in to reinvigorate the party, suggests Mr Bouvet. The FN will have to respond somehow, as it will soon face another rival. Next month the centre-right Les Républicains elects a new leader—almost certainly Laurent Wauquiez, from its right fringe. His focus on issues such as immigration could win back voters who had drifted to the FN.
Until recently, received wisdom was that populists on the extremes of left and right were resurgent. In the first round of the presidential election they won 47% of the vote. They could yet recover from their current collapse. But for now Mr Macron, and potentially the centre-right, look better placed. Mr Mélenchon and Ms Le Pen risk being left brandishing wooden spoons—good for banging pans, but little else.


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