(This is a column for the Morning Star newspaper in Britain written on Sunday 9 April)
The French presidential election moved further into uncharted territory this week following a televised debate between all 11 candidates.
A snap audience survey following the debate on Tuesday night found that the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was already rising in the polls, was seen to be the big winner of the evening.
The far left New Anti-capitalist Party’s Philippe Poutou’s withering attacks on fascist Marine Le Pen and the candidate of the mainstream right, Francois Fillon, also won wide recognition.
The first opinion poll conducted in the two days following the debate showed a dramatic tightening of the race. It put Le Pen and the liberal-centrist Emmanuel Macron both down to 23 percent.
In joint third were Melenchon and Fillon on 19 percent. Benoit Hamon, the candidate of the centre-left Socialist Party, had fallen to 8.5 percent. Other gainers included the two candidates of the smaller far left with 2.5 percent between them.
It was one poll, but it confirmed the steady rise of Melenchon and his France Insoumise (France Unbowed) election front, which is backed by the Communist Party of France.
This election was already unprecedented and is more unpredictable than ever with two weeks to go before the first round, which will determine the two lead candidates to go head to head in a runoff a fortnight later.
The Socialist Party and the centre right represented by Fillon have been for 40 years the twin pillars of the French political system, itself an anchor of the EU, to which both parties are firmly committed.
At the start of this year the socially conservative Thatcherite Fillon was the frontrunner. But his candidacy has been sinking under a weight of corruption allegations.
Hamon was the surprise winner of the Socialist Party nomination in a US-style primaries process. He is from the left of the party, but is more akin to the late Michael Meacher than to Jeremy Corbyn.
His selection in a vote of two million people indicated a desire among many Socialist Party voters for some leftwards shift after the disaster of the presidency of Francois Hollande.
Much conventional commentary predicted that as a fresh candidate of the historic centre left, he would eclipse Melenchon and emerge as the standard bearer of the left as a whole.
But after a brief poll bounce, he came crashing down. There are two reasons why.
First, the neoliberal right of the Socialist Party refused to reconcile to the selection of a moderately left wing candidate.
The defeated Manuel Valls has since led a string of right wing grandees to endorse a rival candidate to their own party’s – the investment banker Macron. He says he is neither left nor right and combines a cosmopolitan social policy with a promise to introduce shock neoliberal reforms.
This is a pattern in social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe. In Spain, the party barons preferred to oust a centrist leader and support the formation of a government of the right rather than entertain some move towards the left anti-establishment Podemos party.
In Greece, Pasok preferred to go into government with the right rather than look to the left. The once mighty party is now about to be dissolved in favour of some new centrist confection.
Those in the British Labour Party fomenting civil war against the Corbyn leadership should look to Europe and behold where their counterparts have ended up.
The second reason for Melenchon’s rise is more positive. It is the radical left policies he is standing on combined with an insurgent political campaign that emphases a break with the old political orthodoxies.
He is drawing huge crowds to rallies and making inroads with innovative techniques. His campaign has launched an imitation of the Mortal Kombat video game. It’s called Fiscal Kombat.
It is not just that his policies are more left wing than Hamon’s – a 100 percent wealth tax, for example. It is also his appeal to working class and popular France to rise up at the ballot box against a discredited system.
The disastrous experience of the Hollande presidency has deepened the alienation of millions from the mainstream political system. He came in five years ago saying that his “only enemy is world finance” and promising some limited reforms in the wake of the post-2008 crash.
But despite controlling the National Assembly and most regions and large municipalities, Hollande’s government rapidly capitulated to the demands of the employers and of the EU.
With a popularity rating of just 4 percent, Hollande was unable to stand for a second term. For those touting some centrist alternative to Corbyn – Hollande was it, the French Ed Miliband.
The backlash has been particularly strong among the young. Youth unemployment is at 24 percent.
And it is among young voters that Le Pen’s Front National has made the greatest advances in the last three years.
Her message fuses a fake anti-elitism and economic radicalism with weaponising the racism and authoritarianism which the French state itself has turned to with its state of emergency and targeting of the Muslim community as a result of its participation in the war on terror.
Until two weeks ago mainstream commentary was united on what the consequences would be for this pivotal election for the future of European politics.
The choice was to be between Le Pen and “the populist tide” and Macron, enormously hyped in every liberal and business paper in Britain and Europe as the saviour of the liberal centrist order following the shock defeat of Hillary Clinton last November.
As for the left – it should simply get behind the neoliberal investment banker as the only hope to stave of the fascist right.
Indeed, most foreign coverage of France ignored the Melenchon candidacy. Not now.
His advance has radically changed the picture. And it has not been simply that he has consolidated “the left vote”. His rise has come at the same time as Macron and Le Pen have both stalled.
It supports the case of the radical left across Europe that there is a strategic alternative to collapsing back behind the failing neoliberal centre which has opened the door to the far right in some countries.
It is that a radically insurgent campaign, based upon the interests of the working class and neglected majority and refusing the politics of racial division and scapegoating, can mobilise vast numbers of people for progressive change.
Can Melenchon’s rise take him into the second round of the election? It is still more likely that it will see Macron versus Le Pen. But no one is in a position to rule anything out.
In some ways as significant is the impact of the campaign already in shaping the politics of the election and beyond.
Speculative head-to-head polls put Macron beating Le Pen by about 59 percent to 41 percent in a second round election. That is a wide margin for a French presidential election, but a worrying large number of people who would cast a vote for a fascist candidate.
With those polling figures what it would take for Le Pen to win would be 90 percent of those who say they would vote for her actually to go and do so, as against just 65 percent for Macron.
There’s the rub. Le Pen’s support is much more solid than Macon’s is. Strangely, large numbers of people are not too keen to vote for an investment banker as the default candidate.
Many French voters have yet to make up their minds. The abstention rate could be close to 30 percent, historically high.
So even on the sole measure of stopping the far right, the Melenchon campaign, which is exciting wide layers, makes an impact. It is likely to bring more people out into political action and to stop Le Pen. And it can lay the basis for the left to play a role in the social and political struggles to come.
For whatever the result of this election – France is set to become the latest site of the breakdown of the European political system and of growing social turmoil.