France’s far-left leader and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has managed to return to the nation’s political spotlight by challenging his far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen on her home turf in next month's parliamentary elections.
The leftist firebrand, who finished in fourth position after the first round of the presidential poll, confirmed Saturday that he would run for a parliamentary seat in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont. He made no mystery about the fact that he chose this electoral district precisely because of Marine Le Pen’s strong political influence there, with close to one-third of voters having cast their presidential ballots for the far-right leader on April 22.
The Henin-Beaumont electoral district
Population: 124,641 (1999 census)
Henin-Beaumont is located near the Belgian border in northern France, a region blighted by high unemployment.
Since its creation in 1986, the electoral district has always been represented by left-wing politicians.
Marine Le Pen moved to Henin-Beaumont in 2007. She was elected as municipal councillor in March 2008.
“There will be a Homeric battle of sorts with extremely powerful symbolism, since [Henin-Beaumont] is the birthplace of France’s labour movement as well as the place where Le Pen, with her bravado, has decided to set up shop”, Mélenchon told France Info radio before announcing his candidacy.
Fighting for political relevance
The showdown between the champions of France’s far left and far right is shaping up to be a symbolic struggle for Mélenchon, whose future in national politics is now at stake.
While Marine Le Pen’s legitimacy at the head of the anti-immigration National Front party is uncontested, Mélenchon has built his success on an alliance of notoriously rebellious leftist movements coalesced around the French Communist Party. François Hollande’s presidential victory threatens to deepen cracks inside Mélenchon’s Left Front Party, as the former senator made clear he would not join the incoming government - unlike several Communist officials, who said they were “ready” to accept ministerial positions.
A head-to-head duel with Marine Le Pen would spectacularly confirm Mélenchon as the leader of the France’s far left.
It would also prolong his campaign claim of being the far right's “sole” opponent. During the presidential campaign, mainstream party leaders tried to seduce the nearly 18 percent of the electorate who voted for Le Pen in the first round of the election. Mélenchon, who garnered just under 12 percent of the vote, hopes to broaden his appeal by portraying himself as an uncompromising bulwark against the National Front.
No love lost
Marine Le Pen is expected to visit Henin-Beaumont on Monday to take up the gauntlet. She has already dismissed Mélenchon’s candidacy on her turf, telling Europe 1 radio with more than a hint of irony: “He’s looking for a district where he can win… I thought it was anger [that motivated him], but I’m realising that in fact it was love”.
Despite trading venomous barbs during the presidential campaign, the two leaders have met only once in a TV debate. After Mélenchon asked her a question about abortion, Le Pen refused to answer, claiming that she couldn’t debate with a man who called her “half insane”. Mélenchon promptly hit back, saying that he was still keen to debate with the remaining “sane half" of Le Pen.
This time, the far-right heiress will not be able to dodge Mélenchon’s challenge without losing face. The showdown promises to be explosive, with both leaders ready to use fierce rhetoric to conquer Henin-Beaumont’s working-class electorate.
Le Pen took home 31 percent of the Henin-Beaumont vote compared with Mélenchon's 14.85 percent in the presidential election's first round. Still, the far-left leader is hoping that a right-wing electorate split between Le Pen’s Front National and the outgoing ruling UMP party will bring him victory there on June 10.