Daniele Obono, a leading member of the Front de Gauche, describes growing support for a new left electoral project in France.

Last December Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly told close allies, ‘If we loose the triple A, I am dead.’ Talk about an ominous premonition. On Friday, 13th January this year, Standard and Poors removed France’s prized triple-A long-term credit rating and downgraded it to AA+. Sarkozy became the first self-proclaimed zombie president.

He definitely earned such a title, considering the zealous frenzy with which he has been following neoliberal dogma. After serving as Minister of Interior and Minister of Finance in the previous right-wing governments since 2002, he won the 2007 presidential election promising to ‘break up’ the French working class’ rebellious spirit and its social achievements.

His politics combined brutal anti-social policies – attacking pensions, hospitals, universities and trade unions – with vicious anti-democratic and repressive moves, including those against the judicial system and local authorities. Attacks included such overt racism and xenophobia – against Roma people, immigrants and Muslims – that even some sections of the more ‘republicanist’ right became increasingly uncomfortable.

The rich have got ever richer, with some earning 75 billion euros in tax gifts, and the the poor ever poorer, whilst those ‘in the middle’ get closer to the poverty trap, with over 1 million people unemployed and more than 300,000 living under the poverty line.

Even now, as the crisis hits the majority of the population harder and harder, rather than slowing down, Sarkozy is pushing for more austerity measures that will make people bear the brunt of the economic disaster created by his (and his banker friends) very own wrongdoings. So after having demonstrated and struck in the millions against each and every neoliberal ‘reform’, people are more than ready to vote out Sarkozy and Co.

For months opinion polls have been showing Francois Hollande, the Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate, leading the incumbent president ahead of the election, whose two rounds are set for 22nd April and 6th May.

Hollande, who was the First Secretary of the PS from 1997 to 2008, is an unlikely champion for the left. A pure product of the elitist and technocratic system, he is particularly emblematic of this party’s evolution over the past 15 to 20 years.

He is a poster child for the latter’s transformation into a ‘party of government’ largely focused on the same issues as the centre right: market liberalisation, economic modernisation and European integration, attempting to soften neoliberalism’s harder edges rather than fighting for radical changes and social progress.

In 2005, at the height of the debate about the referendum on the European Constitution, whereas a majority of the population (and of the PS electorate) was leaning towards a ‘No’ vote, he posed on a magazine cover smiling side by side with Nicolas Sarkozy (who was then Minister of Interior), to campaign for ‘Yes’.

After having been chosen as the Socialist Party candidate last October, he explained that he was in favour of austerity provided that it was given ‘some meaning’, namely ‘serious management of public finance’. To win the left vote, he and his supporters have been heavily using, besides strong anti-Sarkozy feelings, the still-active fear of seeing the Front National (FN) far-right candidate make it through to the second round of the presidential elections.

Having succeeded her father Jean-Marie at the head of the FN, Marine Le Pen wishes to repeat his 2002 electoral success. She is a new, younger face, whose rhetoric is calmer and cleverer than that of her father, even if her beliefs are no less strong. While presenting herself as an ‘anti-system’ candidate, she has also been working very hard to look more respectable and mainstream, stating that her aim is to widen the appeal of her party to ‘all French people’, including the working classes that she has been trying to lure with anti-Euro and anti-EU stances.

Sarkozy and the right have paved her way by legitimising in public debates and in their policies many of the FN’s favourite themes (anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, tough on crime) whilst the PS lost some serious ground by adhering to neoliberal orthodoxy and proving unable to stand at least on its progressive legacy and fight back.

Whether it is about the economy or on political principles, the force providing the most consistent left alternative to both the right and the far-right is the Front de Gauche and its charismatic presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon is a former left wing member of the PS, which he left in 2008 after 34 years to ally with the Communist Party. He had campaigned in 2005 in favour of a left ‘No’ vote against the European Constitution. In 2009, he formed the Front de Gauche, which now gathers seven political formations from the anti-capitalist left.

Fighting against austerity and EU orthodoxy, the Front de Gauche promotes a reversal of the current division of wealth – currently monopolised by capital – in favour of the working class. Its radical policies include wage increases, nationalising banks, economic democratisation via new rights for employees in developing cooperatives and nationalising large corporations,  environmental planning and initiating a sixth French Republic, which would end the ‘presidential monarchy’ of the fifth Republic and give most power to parliament.

In achieving this it insists on the importance of direct and constant popular involvement in society, inspired by the Arab revolutions. Its two main campaign slogans are ‘place au peuple’ (roughly translated as ‘put people first’) and ‘prenez le pouvoir’ (‘take the power’).

Its program called ‘L’Humain d’abord’ (‘Humanity first’) is among the political best-sellers since its publication last September. Thousands of people are attending overcrowded meetings where Mélenchon, an eloquent speaker, denounces in colourful terms the rich and the powerful, and concludes by quoting Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: ‘the cobblestone is the best symbol for the people. You walk all over it every day, until the day it falls on your head.’

Reconnecting the networks that had been crucial to the victory of the left ‘No’ vote during the referendum on the European Constitution, rallying trade unionists and generations of political street-fighters alike around a common battle cry of resistance to neoliberalism, counter-attacking far-right discourses and appealing to the deep egalitarian and revolutionary spirit of the popular classes, month after month, slowly but surely, this movement has been gaining a tangible momentum.

So much so that the PS has now placed the Front de Gauche and its leader ‘under surveillance’, fearing that they will ‘steal’ a substantial amount of voters from them in the upcoming elections. Under pressure, François Hollande has also tried to sound a little more radical, declaring that finance was his ‘enemy’, to which Mélenchon half-jokingly replied, ‘Welcome to the club! We feel less lonely now! But you’ll need more than a pop-gun; they’re real and mean adversaries!’

On the left, the mood has undeniably changed, for the better.