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article imageFrench rebel Melenchon takes the fight to Macron

By Clare BYRNE (AFP)     Sep 22, 2017 in Politics

On his lightning march to power, French President Emmanuel Macron felled several political veterans, but one of them, perennial rebel leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, has survived to lead resistance to his sweeping reforms.

Like Macron, the firebrand leader of the hard-left France Unbowed party campaigned for president this year on a promise to throw out France's tainted old guard.

Unlike Macron, however, he sees any attempt to renegotiate the protections enshrined in France's social model as an attack on the country's values.

On Saturday, the 66-year-old political showman, who scored nearly 20 percent of first-round votes for president, aims to get tens of thousands of people onto the streets in protest over Macron's labour reforms.

"France is the last country in Europe that is holding out on its post-war social gains," Melenchon told RTL radio Thursday as workers and students marched against the reforms in separate protests organised by the CGT union.

"The battle of France has begun," said this former Socialist party senator, declaring war on Macron's "social coup d'etat".

The scale of the protests -- the third in under two weeks over changes which give employers more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with workers and make it easier to lay off staff -- will test Melenchon's claim to be France's rightful opposition leader.

Much hinges on whether he manages to mobilise young people about the changes which have been fast-tracked by Macron using executive orders which were signed into law on Friday.

"The youth participation will be decisive on Saturday," said David Guiraud, France Unbowed's 24-year-old spokesman on youth issues.

"They could make the difference between a decent and a massive turnout."

- 'Not fascists' unite -

Saturday's protest will be the third such demonstration in under two weeks against French Presi...
Saturday's protest will be the third such demonstration in under two weeks against French President Emmanuel Macron's sweeping labour reforms

Like British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Melenchon has form when it comes to mobilising voters a half or a third his age.

He topped the poll among 18-24-year-olds in the first round of the presidential election with radical proposals for a reduced 32-hour working week and a 90-percent tax on the rich, delivered with his trademark rhetorical flourish.

Macron is convinced the changes will lower France's unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, but his recent remarks dismissing his opponents as "slackers, cynics and extremists" is likely to put wind in their sails.

The "slacker" slur instantly became a rallying cry, with protesters at a labour demonstration last week wearing it as a badge of pride.

"Emmanuel Macron humiliates people who disagree with him. Saturday is about giving them back their dignity," Guiraud said.

But in a sign that the momentum may be ebbing somewhat, the second round of union-organised protests on Thursday drew smaller numbers than the week before.

Melenchon, a consummate orator with a talent for drawing crowds, is also seeking to capitalise on the disarray in the far-right National Front (FN) party, which has been riven by infighting since the elections.

Openly courting FN voters who are "angry but not fascists" he appealed to them on Thursday: "Turn your back on (the FN) and come with us, because we defend workers, and others also."

- Bogeyman -

While trying to own the street, Melenchon and his 16 fellow Insoumis lawmakers have also drawn attention in France's new-look National Assembly, despite being only the fifth-biggest party.

Jean-Luc Melenchon  who heads the hard-left France Unbowed party  has proven a hit with younger vote...
Jean-Luc Melenchon, who heads the hard-left France Unbowed party, has proven a hit with younger voters

The unruly MPs, who see themselves as representatives of the struggling working classes, have led the attack on Macron's uber-disciplined, mostly middle-class Assembly members.

The collapse of the former ruling Socialists and of support within the main opposition Republicans for the president's economic reforms have emboldened Melenchon's claim to be Macron's opponent-in-chief.

"Everyone else has been flattened. France Insoumise is the last party standing," Philippe Raynaud, professor of political science at Assas University in Paris, told AFP.

But while towering above leftist rivals, the divisive politician, an admirer of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez -- who has hinted he still has presidential ambitions -- has a long way to go to overcome voters' distaste for his vitriolic style.

Two-thirds of respondents in an Odoxa poll published Thursday said he would make a "bad president".

"Everyone acknowledges that he is a talented opposition politician but not necessarily a ruler," said Frederic Sawicki of the Sorbonne university.

In fact, Macron could not have dreamed of a better opponent, he argued.

"Melenchon will act as his bogeyman. When he seeks reelection in five years he'll be able to say: "It's me or the extremes."

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