Is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the French far left, ready to govern?

Emphatic, combative and demanding: this style found its peak in the speech given by far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon before an inflamed crowd of thousands celebrating his victory in Sunday's French legislative elections.

Standing before supporters in the working-class 20th arrondissement of Paris, Mr. Mélenchon addressed President Emmanuel Macron, and not in a polite manner. “The president should resign or appoint one of us as prime minister,” he declared.

Other leftist leaders have said there should be “discussions” about the country's future. Not this one. The crowd roared Sunday.

Mr. Mélenchon’s tone and hard line have won him a devoted, young following—the only leftist leader with one—and made him both adored and hated, marginalized and central to French politics. More French people have a negative opinion of him, 73 percent, than they do of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National. But he also attracts large crowds who hang on every word he says, as they did on Sunday.

He is now necessarily at the center of the discussion about what the future might hold for France: his own brand of left or the milder form represented by his critics within the winning left coalition, the New Popular Front. His party, France Unbowed, won the most seats in Parliament, 75, in the coalition.

He said the person chosen to lead the government should be himself. Unlike other left-wing leaders, he came close to the presidency, almost reaching a runoff two years ago. He told France 5 television on June 22 that he was “very obviously” ready to be prime minister. “I intend to govern this country,” he said.

It is a prospect that even members of Mr. Mélenchon’s coalition, wary of what is seen as his intermittent extremism, have vowed will never materialize. “If he really wants to help the New Popular Front, he should step aside,” François Hollande, the mild-mannered former president, a Socialist and now newly elected MP, said two weeks ago. “He should just shut up.”

He won’t, and that’s both a source of support and his main problem with other members of a left-wing coalition that risks fracturing almost immediately despite Sunday’s narrow victory.

“The problem they will have, when the president seeks a new government, is that the others do not want Mélenchon,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist and research director emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research. “It makes a real unity of the left impossible. It is very provocative. The left is totally disunited.”

For now, France is without a government, and it is unclear how it will get one. No party or alliance won a majority in the elections. Despite that, Mr. Mélenchon said Sunday, “We will not erase a page or a comma of our program.”

This program is a redistributive, egalitarian and anti-capitalist economic vision, largely inspired by Mr. Mélenchon's 2022 presidential program.

On Sunday, he spoke as if he owned the coalition’s economic plans: raising the monthly minimum wage after taxes to 1,600 euros, from 1,398 euros (or about $1,700 from about $1,500) — “We will decree it,” Mr. Mélenchon said; freezing food, energy and fuel prices; $162 billion in taxes on the wealthy. Other items include payments to families for the costs associated with their children’s education. The right, and Mr. Macron, have criticized him for adding an unbearable fiscal burden to a country already deeply in debt.

Mr. Mélenchon didn't even have to mention another distinctive element of the left's program: “Retirement at 60!” the crowd of young people began to spontaneously shout.

It is hard to imagine Mr. Macron appointing Mr. Mélenchon as prime minister. They are not fans of each other. Mr. Macron has compared the left-wing political movement to the far-right Rassemblement National. Mr. Mélenchon is happy to return the compliment.

“Under his wand, France has become a global example of police violence and government abuse of power, in a regime that should be democratic,” Mr. Mélenchon wrote of the president in his 2023 book, “We Can Do Better! Toward a Citizens’ Revolution,” which has not been translated.

“Emmanuel Macron is procrastinating, he is deliberately procrastinating,” Mr. Mélenchon said Tuesday after arriving at the National Assembly. “He is delaying things to cling to power as long as possible.”

Mr. Mélenchon fights with the media, targeting individual journalists, professes hatred for the United States and love for leftist Latin American dictators, whose verbosity he shares. He has praised authoritarian regimes in China, Cuba and Venezuela. “The Yankees represent everything I detest,” he told Le Monde in 2011. “A pretentious and arrogant empire, made up of ignoramuses, of pitiful leaders.”

A former Trotskyist, a long-time senator from the Paris suburbs and a former minister under the pragmatic Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Mr. Mélenchon is a Faulkner reader who left the Socialists in 2008 to found his own party, moving ever further to the left.

He has refused to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization, has publicly fought with leaders of Jewish organizations in France, and is regularly accused of anti-Semitism, which he denies. He sometimes circulates insinuations that are stereotypes, once saying, for example, that a former Jewish finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, did not “think French” but thought “international finance.”

“There is at least an ambiguity there that fosters anti-Semitism,” Mr. Grunberg said.

Patrick Weil, another political scientist, agrees: “There is a limit to Mélenchon. He is considered by a large part of the population as dangerous and anti-Semitic.”

When Mr. Mélenchon said Sunday that one of his top priorities would be to “recognize the state of Palestine as quickly as possible,” the crowd erupted in chants of “Liberate Palestine.” As at other Mélenchon rallies, keffiyehs and Palestinian flags were prominent.

One of his longtime heroes is Maximilien Robespierre, the bloodiest of French revolutionaries, and during the campaign he showed his authoritarian side, purging five members of his France Unbowed party who often disagreed with him. “Our democracy deserves better than you,” wrote François Ruffin, an independent MP and party member who was not among those purged, on social media.

Yet he has a formula — populist economics to attract poor young people, fierce hostility toward Israel to attract working-class French Muslims in the suburbs, anti-American and anti-European rhetoric and a pro-immigration stance — that has proved successful in this election. Many in the crowd cheering him on Sunday were of Arab and African origin. “The French people are not a religion, they are not a skin color,” Mr. Mélenchon said.

He is the rare French politician who speaks approvingly about immigration, using the term “creolization” to describe his country, as he did on Sunday. “This is very positive,” Mr. Weil said. “It integrates young people of North African and African origin into citizenship. It says France has become a melting pot. It’s super important.”

It’s one of many things that have won him supporters. In a preemptive move on Monday, one of the leaders of France Unbowed, Mathilde Panot, told the RTL radio station that Mr Mélenchon was “absolutely not disqualified” to be prime minister.

In his rhetoric on Sunday night there were echoes of his hero Robespierre, who presided over the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

“The government of the New Popular Front will have no authority other than that which the people give it,” he declared, a sentence that could have been written 230 years ago by Robespierre, a man who ceaselessly proclaimed that “the people” was the sole source of governmental authority.

“It is not the politics of the past that will continue,” said Mr. Mélenchon, “it is the people who have risen up from all the working-class neighborhoods.”

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